Kelly Mathis, the attorney who represented the Allied Veterans of the World internet cafes and once faced a criminal conviction that was later overturned, will have his law license restored.
Monday’s order from the Florida Supreme Court marks the end of a four-year ordeal for Mathis, once the president of the local bar association.
“It has been a long, long road and that was the absolute last piece of the puzzle to complete recovery,” Mathis said. “I’ve been vindicated. I’ve been re-instated. I think it’s huge that the Florida Bar and Florida Supreme Court agreed I should be reinstated retroactively to four years ago, recognizing that this was just wrong from the beginning. I never should’ve been suspended. I never should’ve been arrested and I never should’ve been prosecuted.”
In a rare move, the Supreme Court decided to back-date the re-instatement, so it’s as if Mathis was never suspended in the first place.
In 2013, Attorney General Pam Bondi accused Mathis of being the “mastermind” behind a $300 million racketeering and money laundering scheme that involved internet cafes where people were illegally gambling.
Mathis’ attorneys argued that he was only giving legal advice to a client. Lawyers across the state took particular note of his case, worrying about what it might mean for the criminal liability of attorneys who advise clients.
Police arrested 57 people, but Mathis was the only one to go to trial. An appellate court threw out his conviction, finding the trial judge had been wrong to stop Mathis’ attorneys from arguing that what Allied had done was legal and not gambling.
Mathis had wanted to argue that Allied was offering sweepstakes, much in the same way McDonald’s does. Florida law says sweepstakes are not gambling if they are used to bring someone into a business that sells a legitimate product, like McDonald’s Monopoly stickers that come with meals. Allied Veterans was selling internet time as a legitimate product, Mathis had said.
During the trial, prosecutors presented people who had purchased hundreds of hours of internet time they had never used because they really came to gamble, but Mathis was not allowed to rebut claims that the practice was illegal.
Bondi’s office decided not to pursue a second trial against Mathis.
In March, Fourth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Mark Mahon authored a report that urged the Florida Supreme Court to “immediately re-instate” Mathis.
The Florida Bar “completely agreed with the report,” Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker said. She has never seen the court back-date an attorney’s re-instatement like this.
During his four years without a license, Mathis worked as a paralegal.
Authorities had said Allied Veterans, though it was a nonprofit claiming to help veterans, had only given about two percent of its profits to charitable causes. Prosecutors said Mathis’ law firm had billed the nonprofit about $6 million for his legal services, though his attorneys said the amount was likely less than that and he only billed for actual work his firm had performed.
Though prosecutors charged 57 people, Mathis was the only one who faced prison time after he refused to accept a plea deal. The former presidents of the nonprofit, for example, pleaded no contest. Former Fraternal Order of Police president Nelson Cuba and union vice president Robbie Freitas pleaded guilty, and also faced no prison time.
Mathis, on the other hand, was sentenced to six years in prison after being convicted on about 100 different charges.
Mathis attorney Brian Tannebaum said Mathis’ case was unique in many ways. For one, even after the criminal conviction, the Florida Bar agreed to suspend Mathis, but wait before taking any further action until after Mathis had a chance to appeal. This meant the Bar never had to send Mathis through its disciplinary process.
Tad Delegal, the current Jacksonville Bar Association president, said the case had stunned lawyers.
“It seemed to most attorneys pretty outlandish that he could be criminally prosecuted,” Delegal said. “That was very troubling to me. It was troubling because you are alleging that there was this vast conspiracy to do very illegal things. And yet there were no consequences for the people who allegedly engaged the illegality, or no substantial consequences.
“I am absolutely excited for Kelly being re-instated.”