JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – The man who authorities say masterminded 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.
Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis was identified Wednesday 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 say 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, linked to dozens of alleged gambling operations. Officials say he was the registered agent for 112 businesses related to the investigation, which was handled by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. 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.
The organization under investigation, Allied Veterans of the World, ran more than 40 Internet parlors offering computer games of chance, until this week.
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.
Bondi called the alleged scam “callous” and “despicable” and said it “insults every American who ever wore a military uniform.”
The scandal has 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, but she resigned a day after she was questioned by investigators. She said she didn’t want her ties to the organization to be a distraction for Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s administration and that she was cooperating with the probe.
Meanwhile, news reports of the investigation sent shock waves Wednesday through the Jacksonville legal community, in large part because Mathis is a well-known lawyer. The city’s Fraternal Order of Police president and vice president, both police officers, were also caught up in the arrests.
Mathis, 49, is the past president of the Jacksonville Bar Association. He headed the group about six years ago, according to Ray Driver, the current president.
“It’s unfortunate that a member of our profession is swept up in this,” Driver said. “I’ve always thought that Kelly was a very nice guy. Very professional.”
Unlike membership in the state Bar, which is mandatory for lawyers, the Jacksonville group is voluntary.
Driver said Mathis’ presidency of the group did not overlap with his tenure as Allied Veterans’ registered agent.
A security guard Wednesday turned an Associated Press reporter away at the entrance to the Jacksonville gated community where Mathis lives, 1.5 miles from the exclusive Deerwood Country Club. The attorney’s 7,890-square-foot home on Riding Club Road has five bedrooms and 4 1/2 baths. Duval County records show Mathis bought it in September 2008 for $875,000.
A woman who answered the phone at Mathis’ law firm said no one was available to talk about his arrest.
It’s unclear exactly when Mathis became involved with Allied.
According to a 2004 profile of Mathis in the Daily Record, a business and law publication in Jacksonville, Mathis said he was known for once running a marathon in a suit as a stunt.
He grew up in Brooksville, a small town about an hour north of Tampa, majored in political science at Florida State and graduated from law school at Vanderbilt University.
Mathis worked at two large law firms, and in 2003 opened his own firm in Jacksonville. He described himself as competitive.
“Part of it is can you outwork and outsmart the other attorney,” he told the Daily Record. “It’s also … like being a sherpa, guiding clients through an intricate process. But, most important, you want to prevail for a just cause. If you have a client that has a problem that needs a resolution, you want to give them a favorable resolution.”
On Wednesday, the lawyer sat in a Seminole County courtroom, while his own attorney argued for his release pending trial.
Mitchell Stone, who is representing Mathis, cited his client’s longtime residency in Florida and legal credentials as reasons why he is no risk of fleeing.
“There is no need for bond,” Stone said.
Stone also said Mathis was more than willing to surrender his passport.
A decision was postponed until Thursday.
Duncan, officials alleged, was another key co-conspirator in the case. He is the former national commander for Allied Veterans of the World. He was being held without bail at a county jail in Spartanburg, S.C.
This isn’t the first time the 65-year-old has been arrested on gambling charges.
In 1987, Duncan was charged with keeping a gambling house, sponsoring unlawful bingo game and failing to follow guidelines for games of chance in Leon County, Fla.
The AP reported at the time that Duncan pleaded no contest to setting up a fake charity, called Army Navy Union, to sponsor bingo games in that county.
He was sentenced to six months of probation and ordered not to operate bingo games in Florida.
“There is no evidence that any of the money collected was used for a charitable purpose,” according to court records.
By 1989, the AP reported, Duncan was running South Carolina’s largest bingo network, with 28 games. He was described as the commander of Army Navy Union, which sponsored the games. He also reportedly obtained national charters and state permits that allowed bingo games to operate as charitable activities, free from taxes.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, which reported on the Internet cafes in 2011, Duncan and Jerry Bass met around 1995, when Bass was the general manager of Slots of Fun, a 110-machine video poker parlor in Fort Mill, S.C.
Bass has been arrested and no one returned a telephone call Wednesday to his home.
A telephone number listed for Allied Veterans was disconnected. Multiple emails to an address listed on the group’s website weren’t returned.
Duncan lives in Boiling Springs, S.C., a hardscrabble rural community just north of Spartanburg, S.C. Mobile homes, mill houses and strip malls line the two-lane road leading into the community of 8,000. But Duncan lives in a two-story brick home with a swimming pool in the backyard of an upscale housing development. Two of the company’s officials, Moses Ramos and Scott Pruitt, live within two blocks of Duncan in the same community.
Ramos’ wife, Beth, said her husband had been arrested but didn’t want to discuss details.
“This has been hard,” she said, standing in the doorway of her home.
She said she hoped the “truth would come out” about Duncan.
“Really, I can’t talk about him or anything. He’s a good person,” she said.
Ruth Cantrell, who is related to Duncan, also was reluctant to talk.
“He’s a generous man,” Cantrell said about Duncan. “I don’t know what happened with all that stuff, but I can tell you he’s done a lot of good for people. A lot of good. But sometimes only the bad comes out. I hope people get to see the other side.”
*Pictured above are attorney Kelly Mathis, left, and former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, right.