A federal appeals court heard arguments in a civil lawsuit that a Jacksonville attorney filed after his conviction was overturned in a high-profile case about alleged illegal gambling at internet cafes.
Attorney Kelly Mathis wants the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit to reject a district judge’s dismissal of a civil-rights lawsuit that he filed against former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Statewide Prosecutor Nicholas Cox, former Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger and an investigator and a former general counsel for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office.
Mathis was convicted in 2013 on gambling-related charges involving an organization known as Allied Veterans of the World, which was a major player in the internet cafe industry. The state’s Fifth District Court of Appeal in 2016 said Mathis should receive a new trial, ultimately leading to the prosecution being dropped.
In the civil lawsuit and appeal, Mathis contends that he was acting as an attorney for Allied Veterans of the World and should not have been prosecuted because of any alleged illegal activities involving internet cafes. In a brief filed at the Atlanta-based federal appeals court, Mathis said he had researched legal issues about internet cafes and believed their operations were legal.
“When an attorney who has done nothing more than represent his client competently, professionally, and ethically is left no recourse when he is arrested, incarcerated and prosecuted for his legal advocacy, the legal system itself is in peril,” the brief said. “The Oath of Admission to the Florida Bar provides the freedom, and the duty, to advance client positions that are ‘honestly debatable.’”
But a federal district judge ruled in 2020 that state and Seminole County authorities were shielded from the civil lawsuit through immunities designed to protect prosecutors and government officials for actions they take in their work. The judge dismissed Mathis’ lawsuit; Mathis is asking the appeals court to send the case back and order a trial.
In a brief filed at the appeals court, attorneys for Eslinger and James “Sammy” Gibson, a lead investigator for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, cited what was described as a “master affidavit” that was presented to a circuit judge before Mathis’ arrest. They said the affidavit established probable cause for the arrest.
“The totality of the detailed proof in the master affidavit describes a criminal gambling enterprise of which Mathis and his law firm were material and necessary participants,” the brief said. “Attempting to disguise or legitimize criminal activity through the conduit of a law practice is not a new idea. … Probable cause does not require officers to rule out a suspect’s innocent explanation for suspicious facts. The question is whether a reasonable officer could conclude — considering all of the surrounding circumstances, including the plausibility of the explanation itself — that there was a substantial chance of criminal activity.”
Allied Veterans of the World was shut down in 2013 after law-enforcement raids across the state amid allegations that internet cafes were illegally operating slot machines. Mathis was one of dozens of people arrested.
A Seminole County jury found Mathis guilty of one count of racketeering, 51 counts of conducting an illegal lottery and 51 counts of possessing an illegal slot machine. But the 5th District Court of Appeal ordered a new trial, saying in part that a circuit judge improperly prevented Mathis from presenting evidence that could have showed he was doing legitimate legal work, rather than aiding an illegal operation.
The Florida Supreme Court in 2017 declined a request from Bondi’s office to review the Fifth District Court of Appeal ruling.
Jim Saunders reports for the News Service of Florida.