AP review shows gaming company operators contributed to local campaigns

Corey Perrine/Staff 
Ruth Thrall enjoys a slot-style game, Crazy Bugs, Monday, March 18, 2013 at The Vegas Experience in Fort Myers, Fla.

Photo by COREY PERRINE, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Corey Perrine/Staff Ruth Thrall enjoys a slot-style game, Crazy Bugs, Monday, March 18, 2013 at The Vegas Experience in Fort Myers, Fla.

ORLANDO — Strip-mall parlors with slot-like computer games such as those targeted in a state racketeering and conspiracy investigation have contributed about $100,000 in the past four years to local candidates in Florida, a review of records by The Associated Press shows.

Nearly 90 local officials and candidates in 20 Florida counties — including one in Collier — received political contributions from so-called “Internet cafes,” their owners and their political committees, the AP review of campaign records shows.

On the state level, more than $1 million was contributed to officials and candidates by companies with ties to Allied Veterans of the World. The purported charity was a front for a $300 million gambling operation and gave just a small portion toward veterans, state investigators have said.

Former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned last month after she was interviewed as part of the probe. She denies wrongdoing.

The Internet cafes scattered throughout the state sell customers time online at computer terminals that feature sweepstakes games that simulate slot machines. Florida legislators have voted to ban the operations and Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign the bill by Friday.

In local races, the gaming operations and their owners have donated to sheriffs, judges, mayoral candidates, county commissioners, prosecutors, clerks of courts, property appraisers and tax collectors, the AP review showed.

The bulk of the contributions were in Duval County, home to Jacksonville, where officials received about $50,000 from the local parlors and their owners.

Donations from cafe operators were made in Brevard, Broward, Clay Collier, Dixie, Duval, Flagler, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Leon, Manatee, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Nassau, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Sarasota, Seminole and Volusia counties, according to the AP review. Donations to Florida candidates are limited to $500 per person per election.

The Collier donation was $500 to Naples attorney Joe Foster, who won election last year to a judgeship in the five-county Southwest Florida judicial circuit. Campaign records show that out of $37,404.30 in contributions he received, $500 came from Ramba Law Group. Tallahassee attorney David Ramba is an agent for many of the political committees that represent the gaming industry.

Foster, now a Charlotte circuit judge, couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

However, Ramba is known to other elected officials in Southwest Florida, though not through campaign donations.

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, has traveled on a plane owned by Ramba. Richter, who chairs the Senate gaming committee that supported shutting down the cafes, said Tuesday he doesn’t think the air travel is an issue and he didn’t fly with Ramba.

Instead, he said, the plane was provided by a “bona fide charter air company” and was piloted by commercial pilots.

“I, along with other representatives from the (region’s legislative) delegation, hired a charter air company to transfer us after receiving authorization. It turned out to be a better financial deal for the state of Florida because the tickets were less expensive than commercial when we all flew together,” he said.

“It’s a bona fide charter air company, just like if it would’ve been Naples Air or London Air. It was Capitol Air. It so happens the hardware, the plane, was owned by a lobbyist, who had various clients in various different industries. He was never the pilot. It was a charter air company,” Richter said.

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples

After media outlets reported on lawmakers’ usage of the lobbyist’s plane, Richter said he and other members of the region’s delegation decided not to use it again.

Richter said to the best of his knowledge he hasn’t received any donations from groups affiliated with gaming centers, and said each candidate or lawmaker needs to decide what to do with any contributions he or she has received.

“You don’t always know where campaign contributions come from,” he said. “So I would say probably no one has knowingly or conscientiously accepted contributions from businesses that are illegal.”

The AP review showed out-of-state gaming interests from Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma and South Carolina contributed almost $25,000 to the local races.

Mario Rubio, a Jacksonville City Council candidate and brother of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, received $850.

Candidates in Palm Beach County, where county commissioners in early 2012 approved a yearlong moratorium on the opening of new Internet cafes in unincorporated areas, received almost $15,000.

Most went to the local state attorney, Dave Aronberg, who previously served in the Florida Senate in a cross-state district that included south Lee County.

Dave Aronberg

Dave Aronberg

A spokesman said Aronberg never took a position on the moratorium and said he knew of no Internet cafe cases that have come through his office since he was sworn in earlier this year as State Attorney on the east coast. Spokesman Mike Edmondson said Aronberg believes he was supported by the Internet cafe interests because “he was more receptive to having a general conversation about Internet cafes at that particular point.”

“He wasn’t passionate for or against,” Edmondson said.

Groups affiliated with Ramba, the Tallahassee attorney, contributed more than $15,000 to judicial, commission and property appraiser races in Brevard, Leon, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. Two groups, Floridians for Internet Access and Save Our Internet Access, were political committees.

In an email, Ramba said some of the contributions were made to candidates with whom he or his clients had a long-standing relationship. He said the committees were formed to participate in the political process, just like other businesses.

“Just because the State Capitol is here doesn’t mean the clients are located here,” Ramba said. “Many clients have individual local relationships.”

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