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Antigambling campaign roots out petition fraud

Antigambling advocates have launched a campaign to identify the scope of alleged fraud they say allowed a progambling initiative onto the November ballot.

Thousands of black-and-white postcards from the "Florida Slot Petition Verification Project" began arriving in mailboxes across Florida this week, including St. Petersburg.

The cards ask voters to call a toll-free phone number if they didn't sign petitions that set up a Nov. 2 ballot measure that allowed slot machines in South Florida.

As of late Thursday, organizers said they had received hundreds of calls from people saying they didn't sign the petition. About a half-dozen also called the St. Petersburg Times saying the same thing.

"There is no one in this household of two who would vote for slot machines being allowed in Florida," said retired executive Basil Weedon of St. Petersburg. He called the Times after his, wife, Betty received a postcard and he confirmed with Pinellas County elections officials that her named had appeared on a petition.

"We're 100 percent against it. There's no way she signed a petition supporting it," said Weedon, 77.

The postcard campaign is under way despite a legal setback this week.

Leon County Circuit Judge Nikki Ann Clark on Tuesday tossed out a lawsuit by antigambling advocates because she said there is no legal precedent to intervene if there is no evidence the election was tainted.

The plaintiffs plan to appeal and would use the data gathered from the postcard campaign in a trial, if their case gets that far.

"We're hoping to show, in a very quantifiable way, the scope of the fraud that exists," said Mark Schlein, a Tallahassee attorney for the trio of antigambling groups financing the mailings.

Gambling advocates called the move "a last-ditch, bogus effort" to stop Amendment 4. Approved by 51 percent of voters, the constitutional amendment allows slot machines at existing dog and horse tracks and jai alai frontons in Miami-Dade and Broward counties if local voters agree. If the Legislature taxes the machines, the revenue must go to public schools.

"We did everything proper and ran a legal campaign and we won," said Daniel Adkins, chairman of the parimutuel-backed Floridians for a Level Playing Field and vice president of Hollywood Greyhound Track. "The issue as far as I'm concerned has been resolved."

The pro-gambling group says it submitted more than 700,000 petitions, far more than the 488,722 needed to qualify for the ballot.

"There is a fair percentage of voters who sign these things who don't even remember within two weeks of signing it," said Earl Bender, campaign manager for Yes for Local Control, which backed Amendment 4.

The postcard campaign is financed by the Humane Society of the United States, Floridians Against Expanded Gambling and Grey 2K USA, a group that opposes dog tracks, who were also the plaintiffs in the Leon County lawsuit.

"This issue is bigger than just this amendment," Schlein said. The court ruling "opens up the proverbial Pandora's box for fraud that says the requirements for qualifying an amendment for the ballot are meaningless as long as you commit it early enough and you win the election," Schlein said.

Fraud has been alleged in other citizen initiatives from the Nov. 2 ballot. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has an ongoing investigation into multiple campaigns.

Joni James can be reached at

(850) 224-7263 or jjamessptimes.com.

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