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Jacksonville lawyer at center of alleged veterans charity scheme

JACKSONVILLE — 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 grew up in Brooksville and 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.

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."

A woman who answered the phone at Mathis' law firm said no one was available to talk about his arrest.

A security guard 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 4½ baths. Duval County records show Mathis bought it in September 2008 for $875,000.

It's unclear exactly when Mathis became involved with Allied.

He 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, a business and law publication in Jacksonville, in 2004. "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 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.

Jacksonville lawyer at center of alleged veterans charity scheme 03/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 10:53pm]
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