JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — One of the men who authorities said was at the center of a scam to use a veterans charity as a front for an illegal gambling operation worth nearly $300 million was a well-known attorney who once ran a marathon in a suit as a publicity stunt.
Another man involved in the case was described by friends as a small-town “pool hustler” in South Carolina.
Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis was identified by authorities as the man at the center of the alleged racketeering scheme. Two other men charged as co-conspirators had experience running gaming parlors, including Johnny E. Duncan, who was charged more than 20 years ago with creating a fake charity to sponsor bingo gaming, which allowed the games to operate tax-free. The other man, Jerry Bass, had previously worked as general manager of a video poker parlor in South Carolina.
Authorities said Mathis made about $6 million from the operation. During a news conference Wednesday, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi unveiled a poster with a photo of Mathis in the center and linked to dozens of alleged gambling operations. Officials said he was the registered agent for 112 businesses related to the investigation. Nearly 60 people have been arrested so far.
“Kelly Mathis ... appears to be the commonality of those who were arrested,” Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey said.
A lawyer for Mathis said during a bond hearing Thursday that his client did nothing illegal. Mathis’ bond was set at $1 million. “Mathis is not a ringleader,” said lawyer Mitchell Stone, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. “Mathis was a lawyer for organizations that were trying to legally conduct business. He was advising, he was litigating, he was counseling, doing things that attorneys do for clients. It’s a pretty scary day in America if your lawyer is prosecuted for representing your interests.”
Stone said Mathis is not guilty.
“There has been a rush to judgment,” he said. “We need to take a step back and really analyze whether what he was litigating was legitimate. And I believe ... that what he was saying had absolute legitimacy.”
The organization under investigation — Allied Veterans of the World — ran more than 40 Internet parlors offering computer slot machine-style games, investigators said.
Authorities said the organization’s executives gave precious little to veterans and lavished millions on themselves, spending it on boats, real estate and Maseratis, Ferraris and Porsches.
The scandal led to the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, a Republican who once co-owned a public relations firm that worked for Allied Veterans. She has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, news reports of the investigation sent shock waves through the Jacksonville legal community, where Mathis was well-known.
Mathis, 49, is the past president of the Jacksonville Bar Association. Unlike membership in the state Bar, which is mandatory for lawyers, the Jacksonville group is voluntary.
A security guard turned away an Associated Press reporter at the entrance to the Jacksonville gated community where Mathis lives. The attorney’s 7,890-square-foot home on Riding Club Road has five bedrooms and 4½ baths. Duval County records showed Mathis bought it in September 2008 for $875,000.
It’s unclear just when Mathis became involved with Allied.
Duncan was the former national commander for Allied Veterans of the World. He was being held without bail at a county jail in Spartanburg, S.C.