For the lawyers, a high stakes hand

By Scott Mooneyham | Oct 21, 2013


RALEIGH -- A handful of lawyers in the state may be a bit distracted these days, their attention focused farther south in the state of Florida.

These would the lawyers who have been involved in the video sweepstakes business.

There is good reason to be distracted. Just the other day, a Florida lawyer took the full brunt of a criminal case where more than 50 people were arrested and accused of being part of a $300 million illegal video sweepstakes ring.

The lawyer, Kelly Mathis, was convicted of 103 criminal charges, including racketeering. He is awaiting sentencing, with the combined counts adding up to more than 100 years in prison.

During his trial, prosecutors characterized Mathis as the mastermind of the gambling ring. They essentially argued that he was no different than the mob lawyers who help mafia types set up their illegal enterprises.

Mathis and his lawyers said that he was simply offering legal advice to clients.

"Lawyers all over the nation need to be very afraid when they convict you of a crime for giving legal advice," he said following his conviction.

What does any of this have to do with North Carolina?

The person to whom Mathis gave a bunch of that legal advice was Chase Burns of Oklahoma.

Burns, who took a plea deal in the case and looks like he will avoid prison time, was the single biggest campaign contributor to North Carolina political candidates since 2010. He gave $235,000 to 63 candidates.

The Associated Press reported that court documents in the Florida case showed him earning $98 million over four years from North Carolina video sweepstakes parlors using his company's software.

Questions regarding those donations have led to an investigation by the state Board of Election.

There is another parallel.

Those Florida prosecutors, in arguing that Mathis was the mastermind, said that he had attempted to get around Florida gambling laws by connecting Burns and his associates with a charity and showing him how to set up his games in guise, selling alleged Internet time rather than gambling opportunities.

That work-around, unsuccessful there in skirting the law, sounds similar to those devised in North Carolina to get around two attempts by the North Carolina legislature to ban video sweepstakes and, more recently, a state Supreme Court decision that sounded about as definitive as any opinion can be in upholding the ban.

Despite the law and the court ruling, video sweepstakes operators in the state continue to fight on.

They say that they have yet again changed their software to comply with the ruling. A lot of cities and local law enforcement, not buying the argument, have shut down the video parlors.

In response, some of the operators have sued, and at least one District Court judge (who apparently doesn't read Supreme Court opinions) ruled in their favor.

But after what happened in Florida, the pool of lawyers who will file those lawsuit and work on those work-arounds might have just shrunk.