Lawmakers finally moving to ban storefront casinos

If it looks like gambling, acts like gambling and feels like gambling, we don't need a pit boss to tell us what's going on.

Seminole County knows it. The county has fought against strip-mall casinos for years, banning them and then waging a court challenge to shut them down.

Other local governments, including Orange and Lake counties, know it too. They have their own rules against digital slot machine rooms.

It was our state Legislature that chose not to understand what's been going on inside so-called Internet Cafes, a name that makes sense only if we also call strip clubs "dance halls" and drug dealers "pharmaceutical reps."

And so for years, efforts to ban strip-mall casinos statewide failed.

But one thing our Legislature does understand is how to cover their backsides.

A criminal investigation made public this week into Allied Veterans of the World, a major storefront casino operator and contributor of at least $1.3 million to elected officials' campaign coffers, seems to have cleared up any confusion in Tallahassee.

And cued the behind-covering.

Now state lawmakers can't pass a ban on strip-mall slots fast enough. A House committee approved a proposal to outlaw them on Friday, and that bill will likely make its way to the House floor next week. A Senate committee will take up a ban early next week.

How's that for fast?

With one elected official already down — Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned Wednesday, after she was questioned by police about her connection to Allied Veterans — it seems lawmakers really can move quickly when they want to.

This case is unsavory on a lot of levels. Not only are the leaders of Allied Veterans charged with running an illegal gambling operation, investigators also say claims that the group served veterans is also a sham.

The only thing worse than a $300 million money-laundering and racketeering enterprise is one that also exploits veterans.

But, again, it didn't take much to tell that Allied Veterans wasn't exactly in the business of serving veterans.

It took Thomas Brennan, who served in Vietnam, all of about five minutes to realize that back in 2009.

It's been nearly four years since the day Brennan and his wife stopped for lunch at Chick-fil-A in a shopping plaza on S.R. 436 near Hunt Club Boulevard in Seminole County.

After lunch, his wife wanted to go to the Tuesday Morning next door. Brennan had no interest in that, so he decided to check out a storefront labeled "Allied Veterans Affiliate No. 67."

The economy was bad, and he knew a lot of vets were unemployed. Brennan saw the "Internet Center" sign on the door and said he figured it must be there to help veterans apply for jobs online.

"Then I walked in there and the first thing I saw was an armed guard standing at the door," said Brennan, now 71. "There wasn't anybody on the Internet. They were all playing slot machines."

He called the Seminole County Sheriff's Office to report what he saw.

Last week, during a press conference to detail the Maseratis and mansions and bank accounts seized as part of the investigation, Sheriff Don Eslinger referred to Brennan's call as one of the early complaints that prompted the investigation.

Nobody is naive enough to think the investigation is the sole reason behind the Legislature's newfound zeal for banning storefront casinos.

There's pressure building from the dog tracks and card rooms, the horse tracks and "racinos," as well as the big Las Vegas-style casinos that don't operate in Florida, but want to.

They don't like the competition and are seizing an opportunity to eliminate their rivals.

But no matter the reason, lawmakers are finally wising up to what lots of other people knew long ago.

bkassab@tribune.com or 407-420-5448.

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