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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Mar. 14, 201312:00 PM EST

A blow to the public trust

by: Publisher: James F. Bailey Jr.

I felt the moral windows in Jacksonville shake three times this week.

The first blast occurred when the news dropped that several people, including Fraternal Order of Police President Nelson Cuba, had been arrested as a result of a wide-ranging racketeering investigation into Allied Veterans of the World and its Internet cafes.

Shortly afterward, I was again stunned when Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll abruptly resigned, apparently caught in the web of alleged corruption involving Allied Veterans. At the heart of the investigation is what really happened to the $300 million the organization made from slot-machinelike devices it operated across Florida.

Yesterday came the third blast, when federal, state and local law enforcement officials held a breathtaking news conference to outline the current extent of the alleged corruption and deceit.

By now the media has been filled with as much information as it can extract and we know that more than 50 people have been arrested on counts that include money laundering, ownership of slot machines and lottery. Until proved otherwise, all of the individuals involved must be presumed to be innocent.

Allied Veterans claims it is a nonprofit geared toward helping veterans. Attorney General Pam Bondi on Wednesday called the operation "an elaborate gambling scheme."

When I first heard the news Tuesday, I was stunned and disappointed.

One of the biggest surprises for me was the arrest of Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis, the lawyer for Allied Veterans. I thought there must be some mistake.

But in the Wednesday news conference, law enforcement officials said Mathis was the "mastermind" of the alleged scheme and personally pocketed more than $6 million.

So far, Carroll is the only elected official in the group, but others arrested like Cuba, Mathis and Jerry Bass, national commander of Allied Veterans, have high public profiles.

We know these people.

We've trusted these people.

How could this happen?

And, what does all of this do to the public's trust?

Cuba has an undeniable swagger. As head of the police union with more than 3,000 members, he has maintained a constant presence at public events.

Elected officials — and those who want to be elected — have sought Cuba's support and they've often been eager to be seen with him in public.

By most accounts, while ruffling a lot of feathers with his brashness, Cuba has done a good job running the police union. Under Cuba's leadership the FOP has not only taken care of its members, but also has been generous in its support of charitable organizations and favored political candidates.

Even if you don't particularly like Cuba, you've welcomed his backing if running for office and accepted the FOP's financial and volunteer help if you represent a nonprofit.

Why wouldn't you? These are our police officers. They put their lives on the line daily for us.

According to law enforcement officials, Cuba and FOP Vice President Robbie Freitas — who also was arrested — owned four of the Internet cafes, thus running illegal gambling operations.

Then there is Jerry Bass.

It sounds impressive when you hear Bass is the national commander of the Allied Veterans, even though you might not have a clue about the organization.

You probably never went to an Allied Veterans Internet café and may not know anyone who has played their games even before this week's arrests.

Like Cuba, Bass has maintained a very high profile in Jacksonville. He's touted Allied Veterans' charitable support of veterans in press event after press event, usually attended by important political figures.

In August 2009, Jacksonville International Airport opened a USO "Quiet Room" as a result of a $100,000 donation from Allied Veterans. The area is for traveling military personnel who often have long flight layovers. U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw was on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Carroll, then a state representative, spoke at a ceremony in Springfield in June 2010 when Allied Veterans donated a two-story house for homeless veterans.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown also spoke at the ceremony.

While a state representative, Carroll introduced legislation making Internet cafes legal in Florida while serving as a consultant to Allied Veterans and once did a television commercial for the organization.

In November 2010, amid much fanfare, Allied Veterans held a well-attended luncheon at the Hyatt Downtown to tout its donation of $1 million to charitable organizations, including food banks and hospitals for veterans.

Crenshaw was one of many elected officials who attended the luncheon and was honored as Allied Veterans' "Man of the Year." On that occasion, Crenshaw also presented Bass a certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for his work with veterans.

This column is not to suggest that politicians backed by Cuba and the FOP — or organizations that accepted money from Allied Veterans — did anything wrong.

It certainly doesn't mean elected officials like Crenshaw and Brown, anxious to support and encourage the good works of Allied Veterans, should have done anything different.

After all, who was to know?

Who was to know, if what is being alleged is true, that money purported to help veterans was instead used to purchase exotic cars and yachts?

Or, that only 2 percent of the reported $300 million collected by Allied Veterans actually went to help veterans.

This is far bigger than the question of whether or not the machines used by Allied Veterans are illegal slot machines or whether these people were running a sophisticated illegal gambling operation.

Here's what bothers me about all of this.

If true, people like Mathis, Bass and Cuba, have not just ripped off veterans, they have pulled the rug out from under general decency and the public's trust.

As a society, we tend to naively admire people we perceive as leaders or anyone who is trying to make the world a better place. We want so badly to believe.

Every time one of them falls from grace it's like taking an axe and cutting away at our spirit and our soul.

If true as alleged, this criminal organization that represented itself as a charitable non-profit has done great damage to the reputations, and perhaps the futures, of so many wonderful non-profits who do the right thing, every day.

The disappointment of their downfall diminishes the ability of the next leader or the next good Samaritan because we replace some of our trust with an unhealthy dose of cynicism.

Maybe next time it causes us to think differently about supporting the Police Athletic League, giving aid to veterans in need or helping another nonprofit.

I hope not, because that diminishes each of us.

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(904) 356-2466

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