JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A prominent Jacksonville attorney accused of masterminding a $300 million gambling ring disguised as a veterans charity says he simply advised his clients on legal matters and that prosecutors are trying to "force a connection" between him and the operation of the business.
During an hour-long interview with The Associated Press at his lawyer's office on Wednesday, Kelly Mathis said that his arrest last week has ruined his life and damaged his law career.
Mathis's eyes became red when he talked about how his family has stood by him since his arrest and release from jail on bond. He's been charged in state court with racketeering, money laundering and gambling-related charges.
"Lots of prayer," he said, when asked about the past several days.
Mathis, who is 49 and a former president of the Jacksonville Bar Association, is one of about 60 people charged in Seminole County, Fla., with running the now-shuttered Allied Veterans of the World, which operated 49 Internet parlors with computerized slot machine-style games.
Adding to the probe's notoriety, Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned a day after she was questioned by investigators — though she isn't among those charged.
Those who knew Mathis say he's a well-respected, down-to-earth and hard-working lawyer who's not prone to wearing the silk shirts and shiny suits favored by some of his colleagues.
"I would have thought of him more as milquetoast more than mastermind," said Jim Bailey, the editor of a legal and business newspaper called the Jacksonville Daily Record.
Mathis said Johnny Duncan and Jerry Bass, the two men who once owned Allied Veterans of the World, sought his legal advice about seven years ago and he took the men and their company on as clients. He eventually became the registered agent for several Internet cafes owned by the organization.
Under Florida law, a company must have a registered agent to be responsible for receiving important legal and tax documents; many companies use lawyers.
"There is no connection. They're trying to force a connection," Mathis said of prosecutors. "And that's all they've got, is to say that I was the registered agent, that I had some relationship to all of these companies. And the relationship they've got is that I was the registered agent. But what they fail to realize is that's no relationship at all."
Mathis, who went to high school in Brooksville, Fla., and law school at Vanderbilt University, opened his own practice about nine years ago in Jacksonville after working at larger firms.
Mathis said he researched whether Internet sweepstakes cafes were legal in Florida.
"I spent months researching this in-depth, of sweepstakes law, gambling law, to make sure they didn't violate any of the gambling laws," he said. "Reading cases, reading statutes. Reading legislative history. Gathering all of that information before I ever issued them an opinion. That this is what they could do and needed to do in order to comply with Florida law."
At issue is the legality of the games. To play, customers get prepaid cards and then go to a computer to play "sweepstakes." The games, with spinning wheels similar to slot machines, have names such as "Captain Cash," ''Lucky Shamrocks" and "Money Bunny." Winners go back to a cashier with their cards and cash out. Lawmakers in Florida and other states are now considering whether to ban them.
The game makers argue they are legal sweepstakes because there's a predetermined number of winners, similar to a McDonald's Monopoly game or Coca-Cola's cap contest.
"The law is filled with ambiguities. The lawyer's job is to come up with a legal opinion to advocate for that position," Mathis said. "Even right now in the state of Florida, there is no appellate court opinion. There is no definitive black and white answer. I and my clients were complying with the law."
Mathis is a registered lobbyist and said he met with Jennifer Carroll several years ago while she was a member of the Florida House of Representatives.
Mathis said he had lunch "a couple of times" with Carroll and was asked to explain to her how the cafes operated under the law.
He said he didn't know anything about the public relations firm she co-owned or work that it did for Allied.
He said that he knows nothing about the charity angle of the business — prosecutors say that only 2 percent of the nearly $300 million earned by Allied went to charity — and that he merely advised the company about laws regarding philanthropy.
Mathis said he has only been paid his hourly fee for his work with Allied.
Mitch Stone, Mathis's attorney, said that at one point, Allied wanted to reduce the amount they were paying in legal fees and have Mathis work for a flat rate. Stone said that if Mathis was the "ringleader" of the operation, it made no sense that he would want to reduce his salary.
Mathis said he is being targeted by Seminole County officials because he sued the county over its stance on Internet cafes.
"I think the law permitted the activities that my clients were doing," he said. "Some people call it a loophole. To me, it's either allowed by the law or not allowed by the law."
Anthony Alfieri, a professor at the University of Miami's School of Law, said Mathis has a difficult task ahead.
"He's going to have to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt, with hard evidence that his belief was reasonable at that time," said Alfieri. "The key analysis is not what he thought was criminal or fraudulent. The key for both the state attorney and for ultimately, the Florida Bar, is whether an objectively reasonable and prudent lawyer should have known better and that's the case he's going to have to make."
Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker contributed to this report from Jacksonville, Fla.
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tamaralush