TALLAHASSEE -- The House opened its examination of Florida's gaming laws Tuesday as a state senator gave more details on his plan for a moratorium on Internet cafes.
The inaugural meeting of the House Select Committee on Gaming came a day after its Senate counterpart closed down for the session after a handful of informational meetings; lawmakers in the upper chamber are waiting for a study the Legislature plans to commission, and they hope to hold a few public meetings across the state.
Much of the information House members received Tuesday was similar to the information provided to the Senate panel in the early part of its deliberations, and Chairman Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, suggested his committee would also not take any immediate action on gaming.
"We do not want more band-aid approaches to gaming in this state," Schenck said after the meeting. "We want a full, comprehensive plan and that very well may take a year to develop if not longer."
Meanwhile, Senate Rules Committee Chairman John Thrasher fleshed out his idea for a moratorium on Internet cafes, a proposal he floated without elaborating on it at the final meeting of the Senate's gambling committee.
Legislators grappled with the issue of Internet cafes - which critics argue are illegal games similar to slot machines - in 2012 but were unable to come to an agreement. Some lawmakers want the businesses banned altogether; others simply want to regulate them.
The industry says it offers computerized versions of legal sweepstakes.
Thrasher said the idea behind the bill would be to essentially pause the rapidly-growing industry as legislators try to figure out a broader policy on gaming in Florida.
"Until we have a better feel for what we want to do globally, we ought to call time out," Thrasher said.
He said current Internet cafes could continue to operate, which would seem to be in line with a response Monday from the Coalition of Internet Cafes, an industry group.
"Depending upon exact details of a proposed moratorium bill, if it allows for existing law-abiding operators and employers to continue in their existing capacity, we believe our coalition will support legislation along these lines," spokeswoman Sarah Bascom said then.
Schenck was also measured in his response to the idea.
"Right now, we need to do our educational process before we can consider any sort of policy decisions," he said.
But the House chairman didn't close the door on the idea.
"I would say, again, this is just the first meeting, but we are certainly open-minded to pretty much anything," Schenck said.
TALLAHASSEE — A prominent state senator said Monday he will file a bill placing a moratorium on Internet cafes — a measure that could become the only major legislation dealing with gambling to be heard by the Legislature this year.
The comments from Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, came near the end of what is expected to be the final meeting of the Senate Gaming Committee until at least the end of the legislative session. Thrasher was responding to concerns among some lawmakers that the issue of Internet cafes might not be addressed in the session that begins March 5.
"There will be a bill that places a moratorium on Internet cafes for this year for consideration," said Thrasher, who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee.
Legislators grappled with the issue of Internet cafes, which critics argue are illegal games similar to slot machines, in 2012 but were unable to come to an agreement. Some lawmakers want the businesses banned altogether; others simply want to regulate them.
The industry says it offers computerized versions of legal sweepstakes.
It wasn't clear how wide-ranging Thrasher's moratorium would be; he didn't elaborate on the proposal at the committee meeting and didn't immediately return a message left at his office seeking comment.
The Coalition of Internet Cafes, an industry group, reacted cautiously to the statement.
"From the beginning, we have advocated for increased regulation over an outright ban, agreed that technology has outpaced current law and that there may be some bad operators in the industry," spokeswoman Sarah Bascom said in a prepared statement. "Depending upon exact details of a proposed moratorium bill, if it allows for existing law abiding operators and employers to continue in their existing capacity, we believe our coalition will support legislation along these lines."
Thrasher's bill could be the only one dealing with gambling to be seriously considered by lawmakers. Legislative leaders have indicated that they want to put off dealing with most of the issues — including whether to allow casino-style "destination resorts" in Florida — until the 2014 legislative session.
Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, told lawmakers that the panel would commission a study and then spend time gathering public input, perhaps at a handful of hearings across the state.
"This is probably going to be the last time we meet this session," Richter said.
That would also presumably cut off consideration of most gambling legislation, like a bill to allow pari-mutuel facilities to stop running dog races, which lose money, but continue to offer profitable games like poker.
Even Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, who has sponsored similar legislation in the past, said it would have to wait for the broader gambling discussion.
"I wish we could do it this year," she said, "but we can't."
The first part of Fukada's series documents the plight of old men in a dying labor town.Courtesy of Shiho Fukada Courtesy of Shiho Fukada Enlarge image i
Part two explores the rise of "karoshi" — or "death by work" — a rising trend among white collar workers due to extreme stress.Courtesy of Shiho Fukada Courtesy of Shiho Fukada
In 2008, photographer Shiho Fukada read a story in the New York Times about a town in Japan that was filled with destitute old men. Having grown up in a prosperous Japan, she says she couldn't stop thinking about them.
She traveled to the Kamagasaki district of Osaka to document the collapse of the labor market, including the old and sick day laborers who had been abandoned by an economy they had given their lives to.
That essay sparked a four-part photo series documenting people who have made hard choices in the wake of Japan's declining economy. Over the next few years, Fukada sought out people who were struggling, although they still tried to maintain a brave face.Enlarge image i
Part three highlights the rise of "hostesses," young women who are paid to flirt and entertain men, but not for sex.Courtesy of Shiho Fukada Courtesy of Shiho Fukada
"[Japanese] people suffer in private, in their homes, so I thought it was a really important story to tell, Fukada says.
"The lnternet cafe workers — they put on tie, go to work — you couldn't tell," she says. "The amount of effort people put in is really heartbreaking to me."
The four parts of Fukada's project highlight the aging population of Kamagasaki; the rise of white-collar suicide; the increasing popularity of hostess jobs; and the rise of 24-hour Internet cafes — where people actually live.
"Japanese [people] are so private, so it was really hard for me to approach them and to get access to them," she says. "And on top of that, these are people in extreme conditions who are not necessarily proud of their situations."Enlarge image i
Part four delves into the world of people who live in 24-hour Internet cafes because they can't afford rent.Courtesy of Shiho Fukada Courtesy of Shiho Fukada
Fukada, who splits her time between China and New York, temporarily moved back in with her parents in Japan to work on the project. Her father worked the same job his whole life and is now comfortably retired. But she says those opportunities are fading in Japan, making her work deeply personal.
"I can relate," she says. "I'm a freelance photojournalist. I'm totally disposable. I could be any one of these people. People think, 'I'm not going to end up like that.' But now, given the economy, anyone could end up in this situation."
Undercover Internet cafe video Watch video
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine told an Ohio House committee Wednesday that internet sweepstakes cafes are ripe to become dens of criminal activity.
"I will guarantee you there is money-laundering, and I will guarantee you there is organized crime," DeWine said, testifying for a bill that many say would drive the cafes out of business.
DeWine, who showed an undercover video shot inside one of the businesses in Columbus, said the lack of regulations for the 800 or so cafes in Ohio make them prime opportunities for crime and corruption. He told committee members in the packed hearing room that he could not fully brief them at a public meeting, but he is certain that at least some of the parlors consistently break the law.
A Northeast Ohio caf owner said DeWine's claim is an unfair portrayal of his industry, and he disputed assertions that the sweepstakes offered by the cafes are gambling.
A nearly identical bill died last session after it passed the House, but lawmakers quickly reintroduced it in January. If passed, sweepstakes prizes at cafes would be capped at $10, and cash giveaways would be prohibited.
The cafes sell Internet and phone time, but the controversy stems from cash-prize contests included with those purchases. Winners are predetermined, but customers can use computers that resemble slot machines to find out if they've won.
Rep. Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, said his bill is not a question of regulation or elimination -- it's a question of legality. If these parlors are allowed to legally participate in for-profit gambling, then Ohio would be obligated to end all restrictions on gambling -- otherwise it's a double-standard, he said. Casinos and racetracks are taxed and heavily regulated.
"I don't want anybody to misunderstand us," Huffman said. "As painful as this is for me to say or for us to hear, this bill will by-and-large put most of the entities we call 'sweepstakes parlors' out of business."
Rep. John Adams, a Sidney Republican, disagreed with Huffman and said the contests are not gambling. The bill "redefines" sweepstakes to outlaw Internet cafes, he said.
McDonald's, for example, often offers sweepstakes prizes, but Huffman said the fast-food restaurant is not comparable to the cafes.
"No one goes into McDonald's … and spends $5,000 on hamburgers to pull little tickets off to see if they win money," he said.
DeWine said he's seen data revealing that about one-fourth of 1 percent of a New Mexico cafe's purchased Internet and phone time was actually used. A Massachusetts customer bought 4,000 hours -- or 160 days -- of phone time, DeWine said.
Rob Rogers, a Westlake businessman, owns and operates three Internet cafes -- two in Westlake and one in North Olmsted. The cafes -- Infinity I, II and III -- will be forced to close if the bill passes, he said.
The three cafes are "upscale" and legitimate, Rogers said, and DeWine's claim that some parlors are fronts for money-laundering and other organized crime do not speak to the sweepstakes industry at large.
In June 2012, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office issued a cease-and-desist order to all Internet cafes in Cuyahoga County, including Rogers' Infinity parlors, declaring the businesses illegal. The matter was quickly overturned in court, but Rogers worries about the ever-looming threats his businesses face.
What happens in his cafes is not gambling, he said, and it is not illegal. He said he knows Ohio's gambling laws.
"If it was unregulated gambling, they wouldn't have proliferated to where they are now," Rogers said. "How do you allow 800 of these to get this big if it is gambling?"
Rex Santus is a Kent State University journalism student and a fellow in The E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau at Ohio University.
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A judge has removed an assistant prosecutor handling a criminal case against a supplier of Internet-cafe software, siding with defense attorneys who said he was working in concert with the operators of Cleveland's Horseshoe Casino.
In a ruling filed Thursday, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Deena Calabrese disqualified Assistant Prosecutor James D. May from the case against VS2 Worldwide Communications. The New Jersey company is charged with gambling, racketeering and money laundering in connection with Cleveland-area sweepstakes operations.
Supporters say the cafes are legitimate businesses that sell Internet or phone time and, as a sweetener, offer customers a chance to win money on computerized games resembling those on slot machines. Critics, including Horseshoe owner Rock Ohio Caesars, says the storefront parlors are cover for unregulated and illegal gambling.
VS2's Washington lawyers filed the motion in early January, providing evidence that May communicated with a Rock Ohio lobbyist before testifying in support of tough cafe legislation late last year in Columbus. The defense, which has alleged selective prosecution, also was upset that May traveled to Columbus and back with a state investigator who was under oath in a pretrial hearing.
Calabrese said she acted "to prevent even the appearance of impropriety." The prosecutor's office declined to comment, as did VS2 attorneys Mark Schamel and Cathy Hinger.
The state legislation, introduced late last year in a lameduck session, would have essentially put the cafes out of business by prohibiting cash jackpots and capping the value of prizes at $10. The House passed the measure, but it died when the Senate failed to act before the end of the year.
State Rep. Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, has introduced a similar bill and plans to testify for it at a committee hearing Wednesday. In response to concerns, he has clarified the legislation to make clear that it would apply only to the cafes, not McDonald's and other businesses that run sweepstakes promotions.
Ohio has as many as 800 Internet cafes, Huffman said Friday that he is trying to prevent statewide "for-profit gambling" and fears the cafes will hurt charitable gaming.
"It's not my business to worry about how much a casino operator is making," Huffman said. "They're making a pile of money."
Follow Thomas Ott on Twitter @thomasott1.
A gunman responsible for the Jan. 2 staged robbery at the Gainesville Internet Cafe was arrested early Thursday morning, according to the Gainesville Police Department.
Xavier Gunn, 39, was located and arrested at the home of a family member. A warrant had been issued Jan. 7 for Gunn's arrest.
At about 8:15 a.m. Thursday morning, an investigator with the state attorney's office saw Gunn walking in the 2800 block of Northeast 11th Terrace and contacted police. Multiple police units responded and surrounded the home.
Gunn had made previous statements to investigators that he would not be taken alive, police said. Due to the nature of the threats and charges, agents of the Alachua County Sheriff's Warrants Division and the U.S. Marshals Florida Regional Fugitive Task Force also responded to assist.
They first tried to make contact with Gunn by public address announcements, and then a dispatcher spoke to him by phone. Once Gunn saw the number of units surrounding the house, he exited the front of the home and was arrested without incident.
He was being interviewed by police and was to be transported to the Alachua County jail to be charged with armed burglary, grand theft and possession of a concealed firearm by convicted felon.
Police said Gunn entered the Internet cafe in the 4100 block of Northwest 13th Street last month, displayed a handgun and obtained an undisclosed amount of cash from the cashier, 21-year-old Courtney Hamilton.
Police said Gunn and Hamilton conspired to stage the robbery as a cover for their planned grand theft.
Hamilton was arrested last month on charges of armed burglary and conspiracy.
NOWSHERA: A music store and an internet café were destroyed in a bomb blast in Nowshera’s Shireen Kotha area on Saturday morning, DawnNews reported. Eighteen others shops were also partially damaged in the blast.
The perpetrators had placed explosive materials in front of Iqbal Market’s Palwasha Music Centre, located on GT Road. When the blast occurred, the music store, along with an adjacent internet cafe, were completely destroyed.
Police collected evidence from the crime scene and registered a case against the unidentified culprits.
EUGENE, Ore. -- A Eugene man accidentally shot himself in the leg with a holstered gun Thursday afternoon while he was in the bathroom of a downtown Internet cafe, police said.
Officials with Eugene Police said that the 26-year-old was using the restroom at Indra's Internet Lounge at 271 W 8th Ave when handgun holstered to his leg went off, hitting him in the thigh.
The owner of Indra's Internet Lounge, James Sherburne, told KVAL News that he immediately called police. He said that soon after the shot was fired the man crawled out of the bathroom.
Indra's employees helped get a tourniquet on his leg to stop the bleeding until emergency crews arrived, said Sherburne.
Police officials said that they didn't issue charges in the incident. They added that the man's name will not be released.
Sherburne told KVAL that the man, a regular at the cafe, was familiar with guns and that the shooting was truly accidental.
William Bittorf of W.H.B. of Daytona Inc. filed the lawsuit Tuesday against the city in Circuit Court, attorney David Oliver said. The lawsuit states the city has denied W.H.B. "the right" to run the Internet café at Club Topic since November 2010.
The lawsuit said the business spent more than $600,000 to buy about 100 Internet gaming machines and software licenses to run the Internet gaming business.
"They've got $600,000 worth of machines sitting in storage and gathering dust and the only reason they bought them was because the city issued them a permit that they would be entitled to operate," Oliver said.
Daytona Beach City Attorney Marie Hartman declined to comment because of the pending lawsuit, which she said she had not seen yet.
Bittorf also spent $300,000 to $400,000 to remodel Club Topic, which was described as an adult-oriented cabaret entertainment business, according to the lawsuit.
The city also required the business to post a $250,000 cash bond with the state to be able to operate the Internet café, the lawsuit states.
Club Topic at 400 E. International Speedway Blvd. now is open only about an hour a day so it can maintain its liquor license, Oliver said. It no longer operates as either an adult club or Internet café, he said. Private parties are sometimes held there, he added.
The city provided a permit on Jan. 22, 2009, to operate the business as an Internet café where customers could play sweepstakes through simulated casino-style games. The café provided enough revenue that the business considered it "foreseeable" it would recoup its investment, the suit states.
In November 2010, W.H.B. sought to convert the property to a not-for-profit entity, but the city replied that the conversion was a zoning change and required various city approvals, the lawsuit states.
Then in August 2011, W.H.B. learned a city zoning officer had prepared a memo seven weeks after W.H.B. received the Internet café permit, saying an internet café could not be operated at Club Topic. The memo said that was because there was no classification for an Internet café in the city's land development code, the lawsuit states.
Oliver said his client believed that converting the adult cabaret business with its high-profile location on International Speedway Boulevard into an Internet café would be upgrading the land's use.
The lawsuit notes other companies are running Internet sweepstakes in the city.
"To me and to my client it appears to be an issue of selective enforcement," Oliver said.
LORAIN — Two white men wearing hoods and masks held up the Lucky Sweepstakes on Cooper Foster Park Road Saturday evening, according to police.
Sgt. Mark McCoy said the men entered the business, at 1219 Cooper Foster, about 7:40 p.m.
One of them displayed a black semi-automatic handgun, he said.
The men took the cash drawer and removed the money from it, McCoy said. They also stole $74 from a man who was cashing in his winnings, according to a police report.
He said an alarm then sounded, and the men fled.
According to McCoy, no arrests have yet been made, and police do not have any suspects.
The men are described as 6-foot-1 and 5-foot-11, according to the police report.
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