“I said goodbye without knowing whether I’d be back,” Mathis said during his sentencing hearing in Sanford.
Mathis was convicted in October of 103 gambling-related charges as the lawyer for Allied Veterans of the World, which operated dozens of Internet cafes that brought in $300 million.
Prosecutors said the cafes were illegal gambling operations that were skirting the law based on Mathis’ legal advice. Mathis said his advice was based on what the state law allowed.
Judge Kenneth Lester sentenced Mathis to six years on a racketeering charge and five years for 51 counts of setting up or conducting a lottery. Those sentences will run concurrently.
He received time served for 51 counts of illegal possession of a slot machine. A pre-sentence investigation had recommended two years of house arrest.
Mathis will remain free through his appeal.
More than a dozen character witnesses testified on Mathis’ behalf, describing him as an honest, hard-working family man who gave money to homeless people, never cursed and taught Sunday School.
Some were fellow lawyers, such as Hank Coxe, a former president of both the Jacksonville and Florida Bar associations, and Bruce Stutsman, who’s been an attorney for 26 years.
Coxe said Mathis was a hard worker and a good lawyer. He also said Mathis told the truth and his opinion could be trusted.
“If he were to tell you the sky is blue, the sky is blue,” Coxe
Stutsman described Mathis as “the most honest person I know.”
”You would gain nothing to put him in jail,” he said. “I’d want him as my wingman.”
Some were friends, like Russ Weimer, who has known Mathis for 13 years.
“He’s an extremely good father and family man,” Weimer said. “I just don’t understand how we got this far.”
And some were family, including his wife, Donna, and his brother-in-law, Barry Exum.
“He’s a perfect son to my mother-in-law,” said Exum, a former special forces soldier and police officer who lives in Iraq. “I’ve never known Kelly to tell a falsehood. Kelly is a moral and ethical man.”
When his wife testified on behalf of her husband of 19 years, she read letters from their daughters.
One daughter said Mathis is “not only my father but my hero.”
Another said, “You are the only person I would jump off a bridge for.”
“All of this is wrong on so many levels,” said Donna Mathis, who used to be employed at her husband’s law practice but has returned to work as an emergency room nurse.
Kelly Mathis said listening to the witnesses made him feel like Huck Finn, a literary character who watched his own funeral from a hidden vantage point in a famous book by Mark Twain.
The youngest of three children born to a carpenter and a secretary, Mathis recalled how important education was to his father. His dad urged Mathis to go to college so he wouldn’t have to work so hard.
At age 10, Mathis decided he wanted to become a lawyer. He worked three jobs in high school and also earned a scholarship to go to Florida State University.
Later, he went to Vanderbilt Law School on loans and scholarships.
Mathis said he was not brilliant but learned to succeed through hard work.
“I felt I could outwork anybody,” he said.
His defense attorneys said Mathis had become the scapegoat for Florida’s murky sweepstakes laws. About 1,450 Internet cafes still operate in the state, even though Florida has tightened the regulations.
Statewide prosecutor Nick Cox said Mathis paved the way for Allied’s owners to set up an operation in Florida that patrons could not distinguish from a casino.
“The reason it came to Florida was because of him,” Cox said. “To suggest that it was not his idea belies the evidence.”
Cox said Mathis had worked on cases from other states that showed this kind of operation could be illegal.
“Never once did he say to his clients, ‘This could be risky,’” Cox said.
Additionally, he said, Mathis had a confidential strategic plan to defend the operation by proposing bills to the Legislature, to make contributions to politicians and to discredit statistics from an anti-gambling group.
“He wasn’t a lawyer,” Cox said. “This was a crime.”
Of the 57 arrested, only Mathis has faced jail time.
More than three dozen others — including former and current leaders of Allied Veterans and the computer software maker — have pleaded guilty but received no time in jail.
Mitch Stone, Mathis’ attorney, believes the judge sentenced Mathis to jail to send a message to the 17 remaining defendants. That group includes former Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police President Nelson Cuba and the group’s vice president, Robbie Freitas.
“His life is over as he knows it in terms of his career,” Stone said of Mathis, who was suspended from practicing law in December. “The one thing he can do is be with his family.”
After talking with reporters outside the courtroom, Mathis headed home to see his daughters, something he’ll get to do for at least a while longer.
Leaving his Jacksonville home — and his four daughters — Wednesday morning was the hardest thing Kelly Mathis has done.