A Jacksonville attorney sentenced to prison and then exonerated over his guidance to internet cafes will try Wednesday to revive his lawsuit against the former sheriff and prosecutors who put him in jail.
Kelly Mathis will tell appeals court judges in Atlanta that a federal judge in Jacksonville was wrong to dismiss his $50 million lawsuit against figures including former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
But lawyers answering his appeal are standing firm on charges that a jury found Mathis guilty of in 2013.
“There is compelling evidence that Mathis is guilty as charged of violating Florida’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act,” a lawyer representing Bondi and statewide prosecutor Nicholas Cox told the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in a brief last year.
Mathis was arrested in a crackdown on what state officials called a $300 million racketeering scheme disguised as a charity helping veterans.
Bondi called Mathis the mastermind behind the scheme, but Mathis said he was simply a lawyer advising the St. Augustine-based organization, which operated dozens of game rooms in several counties, how to do business legally.
Although a jury convicted him of 103 charges and he was sentenced to six years in prison, Mathis never backed down and never served time.
A state appeals court concluded his trial judge had been wrong in not letting Mathis present evidence that the internet cafes were legal and prosecutors eventually dropped the charges rather than taking Mathis to trial again.
The lawsuit Mathis filed in 2019 against former Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger, Bondi and others contended he had been wrongly prosecuted and was due payment for the damage the case wreaked on his life and law practice.
Mathis “was arrested solely for providing legal representation to his clients consistent with his oath of admission to the Florida Bar,” Mathis argued in a brief to the 11th Circuit.
Although U.S. District Judge Brian Davis had ordered his lawsuit permanently dismissed in 2020, Mathis took his complaint to the Atlanta appeals court to press his argument again.
“Attorneys risk discipline by the Florida Bar or being subject to a legal malpractice action under certain circumstances,” Mathis wrote, “but should not be subject to criminal prosecution for practicing law and advocating for clients when the law is not wholly settled.”