FLORIDA KEYS -- Gulf Internet Services venues in Tavernier, Marathon and Key West were among 51 Internet sweepstakes cafes around Florida that were shuttered by state and federal officials last week as part of a massive probe.
But Monroe County State Attorney Catherine Vogel said she doesn't plan to take action against other sweepstakes cafes in the Keys right now.
"At this point I would like to see what happens with these prosecutions," Vogel said.
The Gulf Internet storefronts, like the others targeted by officials last week, were part of the network run by a purported nonprofit called Allied Veterans of America.
Authorities arrested nearly 60 people in connection with Allied Veterans, accusing them of racketeering and conspiracy in what they called a $300 million fraud scheme.
But while the most serious charges made against the defendants relate to their alleged misrepresentation that profits from the cafes were being donated to charities, they were also accused of operating illegal slot machines and gambling houses.
For other Keys Internet sweepstakes venues, it was those gambling-related charges that caused concern.
Steve DeGraves of Stick Stein in Key West and Robert Kofler of Lucky Duck in Marathon both said the raids last Wednesday led them to make phone calls -- DeGraves to his attorney and Kofler to the South Carolina-based company that operates the slot machine sweepstakes software his customers play.
Both said they came out of the calls reassured that their operations are legal.
"We've always been very diligent," DeGraves said.
But Arnie Diaz, who opened his own sweepstakes venue in Key Largo just one day before the raids, is less confident. In fact, the news led Diaz to indefinitely shut down his mile marker 99.6 cafe, called The Place, pending more information on its legal status.
"The only reason I'm worried is because I'm a decent person," Diaz said. "I did this because I thought it was legal."
He added that he had called various state agencies and visited the State Attorney's Office seeking information on his new business' legal standing, but still didn't have clear answers.
Internet sweepstakes cafes operate under Florida promotional game statutes rather than under gambling laws. Customers at the sites use prepaid debit cards to place wagers on the virtual slot machine games, which are housed on computers.
Operators of the businesses say that they are not selling slot machine credits, but rather time on the Internet. The sweepstakes entries, they say, are just a giveaway, much like sweepstakes cards handed out by fast-food restaurants to their customers.
Though prosecutors filed gambling charges against the Allied Veterans defendants, and Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger promised last week to go after other Internet cafes next, many, including Vogel, say that cafes operate in a legal gray area.
"I would be so happy if the Florida Legislature would give us some reasonable guidelines on this," she said.
There's a possibility Vogel will get her wish. In the aftermath of the raid, state House and Senate committees were scheduled to meet Monday to contemplate a bill that would ban all new Internet sweepstakes cafes. Existing cafes, if legal, would be allowed to remain in operation.
Results of the hearings weren't available as of press time.
Kofler of Lucky Duck said that it's business as usual right now for his Marathon cafe.
Diaz was awaiting the legislative hearings before deciding whether to reopen The Place.