Attorney Kelly Mathis is starting over
Starting from scratch after court reversed felony conviction stemming from Allied Veterans case, he's helping others avoid similar fate.
Kelly Mathis survived what’s arguably the worst punishment that can be visited upon a lawyer — suspension from practice as result of a felony conviction – and he’s ready to share his story. He’ll do that Wednesday evening in the Wells Fargo Center auditorium. Mathis will be the keynote speaker for a Jacksonville Bar Association continuing legal education program, “Mathis v. State: Protecting the Profession.”
“I want people to understand the story, and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else,” Mathis said. The story began more than five years ago when Mathis was retained by Allied Veterans of the World, a St. Augustine-based nonprofit. He represented the charity, purportedly established for the benefit of veterans, when the state alleged that Allied’s network of internet cafes was nothing more than an illegal gambling enterprise. Mathis prevailed in two court actions on the ground that what Allied was operating was a sweepstakes, and therefore not illegal under state law. On March 15, 2013, authorities raided the internet cafes and arrested 57 people, including Mathis, whom the state accused of being the mastermind of the illegal gambling operation estimated at $300 million. Mathis spent four days in jail after his arrest. When he was released, he relied on his training as a lawyer and took comfort from his faith in the justice system, believing it “would eventually be OK,” he said. “I thought any hour, any day, somebody is going to wake up and this will be over. They’ll realize – wait a minute, you arrested the lawyer, too? That never happened,” Mathis said. Of the 57 people arrested, only Mathis remained after charges against some were dropped and others made plea deals with the state to avoid prosecution. He made his position clear to the state as soon as he was released when he told prosecutors, “I’m not even considering a plea deal. Don’t waste my time and don’t waste your time. “I gave them two choices: Drop the charges or take me to trial,” Mathis said. “Maybe I was stubborn, but I knew I was innocent. That’s the bottom line.” His confidence remained firm until his days in court began. “Then I went to trial and – certainly – I can’t lose at trial. Where’s the evidence? As the trial went on, I had serious doubts about the justice system. My faith in the legal system, my faith in God, my faith in justice, it was all shaken drastically,” Mathis said. Seven months after his arrest, Mathis was found guilty on 103 gambling-related counts. He was sentenced to six years in prison, but remained free while appealing the verdict. With the guity verdict, The Florida Bar was required to suspend Mathis’s license to practice. Unable to represent clients, Mathis used his legal training to help prepare for appeal. It was research with a single purpose: To prove to a judge that what happened can’t be done to lawyers. “What I found is there’s not a lot of case law – virtually nothing on point – when a lawyer has been arrested for giving legal advice. To point the judge to a case was tough. A lot of it was reasoning by analogy,” Mathis said. But it worked. The 5th District Court of Appeal reversed the conviction and sentence and remanded Mathis for a new trial. The state then sought the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to appeal the ruling of the appellate court, which was denied. On March 15, the state attorney general’s office decided it would not try the case again and dismissed all charges against Mathis. He and The Florida Bar filed a joint stipulation for dismissal and a motion for an order of expunction, effective prior to the suspension of Mathis’s license. “July 17, 2017, is one of those key dates I’ll always remember.That’s when I was reinstated retroactively to 2013,” Mathis said. During his suspension, Mathis worked as a contract paralegal at the Lindell & Farson law firm’s office in Mandarin. As soon as his license was restored, he rented an office at the firm. “I hung out my shingle immediately. Then I started trying to gather some clients again. Some, I contacted, some contacted me. I’ve been fortunate to get a number of referrals from other attorneys,” Mathis said. “It’s not like I picked up where I left off,” he added. “It’s clearly starting over from nothing. I had my name, I had my reputation. It’s a little tarnished now, despite the fact that I’m cleared.” Mathis, a past president of The JBA, was invited to speak at the group’s November 2016 luncheon, but he declined because it was right after the appellate court had reversed his conviction, but the possible second trial in lower court was pending. Fifteen months later, Mathis has accepted the invitation “After that I thought, at some point, I’d like to address the Bar. Through discussions with them they said ‘your story really can’t be told in 20 minutes at a luncheon. We’ll have a CLE, let you talk for an hour and explain the law.’ “I think lawyers are going to look at this case. (It’s about) the ethical and professional responsibility of lawyers and how that interacts with the criminal justice system when a client is seeking advice that can (have) criminal implications. Lawyers really need to understand exactly what the legal, criminal responsibility is for practicing law. I’m an expert on that,” he said. The program begins with a reception at 5:30 p.m., followed by the CLE presentation at 6 p.m. Visit jaxbar.org for program details and reservations.