Banning of Internet Cafes Could Be a Legal Gamble

TAMPA (2011-12-7) -

Hillsborough County Commissioners have voted to ban the use of slot machine-like devices at those "Internet Cafes" that have popped up recently around the county. The legality of their move, however, could be a gamble.

You might have seen them recently: those brightly-lit storefronts emblazoned with the words "Allied Veterans" and "Internet Sweepstakes." Backers say they're a pleasant diversion, a way to while away some time in a social setting. Opponents claim they feed an addiction to gambling.

Among the people in the latter camp is Hillsborough Commissioner Sandra Murman:

"I believe they are predidatory operations that are located in areas where elderly live and poor people live," Murman told her fellow commissioners. "And every loss of a dollar by a citizen costs our county programs and our community, and puts dollars in the pockets of out-of-state owners, where the services are located."

Several dozen people showed up at the commission meeting wearing bright yellow
"Don't shut down our internet cafe" shirts. They included people who make a living at the cafes and those, like Melissa Barfield, who get donations from the money generated by the players.

She's with the Children's Cancer Cooperative of Summerville, South Carolina, and traveled to Tampa for the meeting.

"Internet cafes - they donate to us," she says. "We get a percentage of their weekly revenue, comes to Children's Cancer Cooperative. In turn, I turn around and I give this money back to the state of Florida. We have donated almost $2 million just alone in Florida this year."

It's unclear legally whether the cafes can be called gambling houses. That should lie with the state legislature, which may be called on during the upcoming session to rule on whether these places should be regulated.

So county attorneys took the extra step of walking in an undercover Sheriff's deputy, who wore a black hood while giving his testimony.

"We had an undercover session with one of the salesman that sells the software, and he advised us that we could have the odds set at whatever we wanted them set to," said Deputy Anthony Bordenaro.

He says he also witnessed what appears to be complusive gambling behavior.

"We had observed one lady come in and spend $350," Bordenaro told commissioners, "and lost her $350 within about a 30-minute period."

But Andrew Sash, who manages an internet cafe in Tampa, says people can come in and don't have to spend a dime to enjoy some time with friends.

"You're making a major decision on people's choice. And it's very important that we understand they choose to come to our place and enjoy themselves," says Sash. "We need to not look at shutting down local business, but we need to look at supporting our local businesses that are supporting their families, and help them grow."

Board members then voted 5 to 2 to ban the use of simulated slot machines using the Internet to set odds. The move came after Commissioner Victor Crist instead pushed for a moratorium on new cafes opening, preferring to wait until the legal picture becomes a little clearer.

"We just keep speculating on is this machine a gambling machine? Is this not a gambling machine? Is this gambling or is it not gambling?," asked Crist. "Well, the bottom line is we can go on arguing and debating this, but it isn't our decision to make. It's the court's decision. It's the legislature's decision. And if the legislature fails to act, then the courts must act."

Commissioner Mark Sharpe agreed, saying the board had to be very careful, lest they end up gambling with taxpayer's dollars on a legal challenge.

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