Florida drops charges in case that shook state's politics

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida is dropping charges against an attorney once accused of being at the center of a $300 million gambling ring that led to the 2013 resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll.

Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis was convicted of 103 counts of racketeering, possessing slot machines and other charges and sentenced to six years in prison. But an appeals court last year ruled that Mathis deserved a new trial because his attorneys were not allowed to call witnesses that could have bolstered his defense against the charges. The Florida Supreme Court in February declined to take up the case.

The legal setback meant Florida either had to start over with a new trial or drop the charges.

Statewide Prosecutor Nicholas Cox — who works directly for Attorney General Pam Bondi — said in a statement released Wednesday that it was time for state authorities to direct their attention elsewhere.

Cox said that the state's "current priorities are fighting synthetic drugs, illegal opioids, human trafficking and gang violence. I feel that we should focus our resources on these priorities for the best interest in the state of Florida." Cox also noted the company targeted by authorities is no longer in business.

Mathis, who was first charged in 2013, told media outlets in Jacksonville on Thursday that he had always vowed to fight the charges to the end.

"I didn't think that it would take four years to do so," Mathis said. He said it can be hard to stand for what one believes. "The road is more challenging than you anticipate. But with strength, you continue to go on. You continue to take each step. And I vowed to prove my innocence and establish that I had not done anything wrong. I'm pleased now with the outcome."

Four years ago Bondi stood alongside law-enforcement officials who contended that Mathis was at deeply involved with an organization called Allied Veterans of the World that ran what were known as internet cafes or parlors.

The cafes, which operated in a legal gray area in Florida's gambling law, had computerized slot machine-style games. Investigators said the charity was a fraud and executives gave precious little to veterans while lavishing millions on themselves, spending it on boats, beachfront condos and Maseratis, Ferraris and Porsches.

Bondi at the time called the alleged scam "callous" and "despicable" and said it "insults every American who ever wore a military uniform."

The fallout from the case was immediate and led Gov. Rick Scott to force Carroll to resign. Carroll, who had been seen as a rising star for Republicans, was never charged, but she did eventually admit to violating state ethics law and paying a $1,000 fine. Carroll acknowledged she did not properly disclose on required financial disclosure forms all the money paid to her by Allied when she was a state legislator.

The Florida Legislature in 2013 also passed a law banning internet cafes.

Mathis' defense team wanted to make the case at trial that, in his capacity as Allied's attorney, Mathis actually thought the cafes were legal under Florida law. He didn't game the system, the defense theory goes, but advised his clients in his belief that the cafes were legal at the time.

The trial judge said Mathis was not being charged as a lawyer, however, but as a member of the organization, and barred the jury from hearing that line of defense.

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