9 Investigates strip mall casinos

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ORLANDO, Fla. - From the outside, the half-dozen Internet gaming centers in southern Brevard County aren’t much to look at.  Mirrored glass, perhaps one neon “open” sign and a steady flow of traffic is the only indication that the gaming centers are open for business; business the state tried to shut down less than a year ago.

In 2013, the state arrested 57 people and seized more than $300 million in assets following a raid on the Allied Veterans of the World Internet Gaming Centers.  While so far only one person, Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis, has been found guilty in the case, the state has been quick to act. 

Less than a month after the arrests, the State of Florida passed House Bill 155, which was designed to prohibit Internet gaming centers by placing limits on the type of machines, the prizes that could be won and the level of skill required.

At first, Internet gaming centers across the state that were not affiliated with Allied Vets closed their doors, but some have now reopened.

“We do not pay out in cash,” said the owner of one of Brevard County’s gaming centers.  “We have items for people to buy and we also have a catalog.”

At the gaming center, there are racks of clothes and cases of jewelry. There are also computer games bearing a strong resemblance to slot machines. 

Customers can buy time on the machines and then use winnings to buy clothes or jewelry off the rack.

“It’s relaxing for the mind and we don’t spend much,” said Brevard County resident Margarite Skuba. “I got this blouse there.”

While cameras for Eyewitness News were not allowed inside, investigative reporter Christopher Heath did go in all of the Brevard County facilities, observing people playing the games, but no cash payouts. 

However, at one location where there were no clothes or other prizes on display, he attempted to ask employees what the payoff was and was told, "No comment."

“They just give you little prizes and stuff like that,” said one customer, who asked not to be identified.  “It’s hard to say, really. I don’t got a good memory.”

The state said it is up to law enforcement to determine if the businesses are in compliance with state law. 

Eyewitness News contacted the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office to see if it has investigated the establishments but was told the office is unsure if it has checked the businesses for compliance.

But determining compliance may not be so simple thanks to the Florida Legislature.  According to the law passed in 2013, no machines can take dollar bills or swipe cards. Each must have some level of skill, and they cannot award cash or gift cards as prizes. And those prizes must have a value of less than 75 cents.

The law, as written, would seem to ban not just Internet casinos but also many children’s games at places like Chuck E. Cheese, which offers prizes for games of skill well in excess of 75 cents.