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[August 30, 2014]
Court records: Eslinger at odds with Bondi over $86 million forfeiture case [Orlando Sentinel :: ]
(Orlando Sentinel (FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 30--SANFORD -- When it came to the money seized as part of the Allied Veterans of the World Internet cafe gambling case, Chase Burns was the jackpot.
Authorities seized $86 million -- including a yacht -- from the wealthy Oklahoma cattleman and software designer.
Burns fought back and, eventually, Attorney General Pam Bondi's legal team negotiated a $7 million settlement last year. But Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger refused to accept the deal, according to court records.
So he hired an outside lawyer, a former South Florida judge, and set about waging a 12-month battle to have that settlement set aside.
While a final deal is still pending, attorneys during the past two weeks have been trying to hammer out a new settlement. And they appeared close to a deal, one that people familiar with the case say may be worth $10 million.
If that's the case, Eslinger's decision to challenge the settlement will have paid off.
He would not comment. Bondi, at a campaign stop in Casselberry on Thursday, said she had no direct involvement in settlement negotiations and could not recall ever discussing it with Eslinger.
Burns' lawyer, Robert Leventhal, would not comment.
Investigation's roots Burns, 38, of Fort Cobb, Okla., was the biggest catch in the Allied case, a roundup of 57 people, accused of racketeering, money laundering and operating illegal casinos.
Allied had opened 50 Internet cafes across the state, and the business was wildly successful, according to authorities, generating $300 million in revenue in five years.
Customers paid a cashier for Internet time then walked to a personal computer, punched a few keys and began playing what appeared to be slot-machine games.
Burns owned the software program that converted PCs into virtual slot machines and earned $70 million in licensing fees from Allied, according to Mitch Stone, defense attorney for co-defendant Kelly Mathis.
Eslinger's office began a criminal investigation into the cafes and convinced Bondi and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to join in.
In March 2013, officers raided the storefronts and began rounding up suspects. They also filed a series of civil suits, seeking to keep $103 million in seized assets.
Attorney told to 'stand down' The seizure of $86 million from Burns dwarfed every other Allied Veterans' forfeiture case. Judges froze $81 million in corporate and personal accounts and barred him from using his 112-foot, $4.5 million yacht until the civil case was decided.
He and other suspects hired lawyers to try to get their money back. Two attorneys in Bondi's Tampa office, Diana Esposito and Kenneth Wilson, were in charge of those cases.
They had successfully negotiated a series of settlements with other defendants and on Sept. 19 reached the $7 million deal with Burns, according to court pleadings.
On Sept. 23, lawyers stood in front of Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson and told her they had a deal, but a few weeks later, Eslinger rejected it.
Esposito phoned Burns' attorneys with the news.
"Esposito announced that the attorney general is 'out of the case' and that she and Wilson had been told to 'stand down.' ... The Sheriff agreed to the settlement of the parties. But thereafter he has attempted to thwart and interfere with that settlement," Burns' lawyers wrote in a motion, seeking to have the settlement enforced.
Eslinger's attorney, Israel Reyes, a former circuit judge in Miami-Dade, argued in court paperwork that Esposito and Wilson may have negotiated on Bondi's behalf but not on Eslinger's. Reyes also pointed out that Eslinger never signed a copy of the settlement.
"The Sheriff has stepped back in and basically taken over the civil side of the case," said Thomas Sadaka, an Orlando attorney who represented another of the defendants, Aamir Waheed, who pleaded no contest to possessing a slot machine, a misdemeanor, and settled his forfeiture case for nearly $2 million.
Most cases dropped Allied's lawyer, Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis, is the only Allied defendant to go to trial and get prison time: six years. Prosecutors dropped charges against 25 defendants. They negotiated plea agreements with the bulk of the others, typically agreeing to probation or no punishment.
Burns had been charged with 208 crimes, including racketeering, money laundering and operating a gambling house. On Feb. 3, he pleaded no contest two felonies -- two counts of assisting in setting up a lottery -- and was placed on a year of probation.
In three cases, there have been no deals, and defendants are still facing charges.
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