TALLAHASSEE — The fate of a casino expansion petition drive rests in the hands of a Tallahassee judge who on Wednesday agreed to conduct an emergency hearing to consider evidence that the Seminole Tribe of Florida may be attempting to sabotage a constitutional amendment asking voters to approve casinos outside of the tribe’s control.
The lawsuit was brought by Las Vegas Sands, which is backing a constitutional amendment that would allow card rooms across the state to be converted to Las Vegas-style casinos under the condition that they are located 130 miles from the tribe’s Hard Rock and other casinos. Sands is also proposing another amendment that would authorize three new casinos to conduct Las Vegas-style games in Florida.
If approved, the measures would undercut the Seminole Tribe’s monopoly on casino games, which Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature reauthorized in a gambling agreement signed in May.
But since Sands launched the petition drive in June, it has faced an aggressive petition blocking effort, allegedly financed by the Seminole Tribe, that includes paying petition gathering firms to not work in Florida, hiring workers to intimidate and interfere with other petition gatherers, and running an informal signature-gathering operation aimed at confusing voters.
“Every day that goes by, what’s happening is people are being poached. People are being paid off to leave the state,’’ attorney James McKee told Leon County Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey at a 30-minute hearing on Wednesday.
“For what purpose? For the sole purpose of trying to not have the requisite number of signatures obtained between now and Dec. 30. We’re only 22 days away at this point. The whole game is to try to get as close to Dec. 30 as possible, while they continue to do their obstructionist and sabotage activities.”
Petitioners have until Dec. 30 to finish gathering the required 891,589 signatures in order to give election officials in each county enough time to validate the authenticity of the signatures so that the ballot measures could be placed on the ballot by the Feb. 1 deadline.
McKee urged Dempsey to order the tribe’s clients to halt the petition blocking immediately. The judge denied the request for a temporary injunction but set a hearing date for Friday to hear the motion to dismiss the case, brought by clients hired by the tribe, including Mark Jacoby, Kara Owens and Cornerstone Solutions Florida. She set another hearing for Tuesday to hear the request from Sands for an injunction against the group’s petition activity.
The Seminole Tribe’s attempt to poach petition gathering firms was first reported by Politico and is outlined in a complaint filed by Sands and its petition-gathering firms.
The complaint alleges that the “tortious interference with a contractual relationship” is being run through Cornerstone Solutions, a West Palm Beach-based firm founded by Rick Asnani. The firm has been paid $6 million from a political committee financed by the tribe, called Standing Up for Florida. The tribe has given the committee $10 million, and it has financed $4 million in campaign-style media ads as well as $1 million in what it calls “field education services.”
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Those education services allegedly also involve the tribe’s attempt to hire people to gather signatures on a separate petition that the complaint claims supports the Seminoles’ compact and new revenue for Florida.
The effort, known as a plebiscite, would not change Florida law and is not associated with any official campaign but attempts to demonstrate support while also collecting information from voters, such as a signer’s name and address.
Sands and its contractors say the plebiscite is an attempt to confuse voters into thinking they signed a petition in support of one of the gaming initiatives.
The company is also alleged to have hired Jacoby, an Orlando-based political consultant who has faced voter fraud charges relating to his election activity in the past and was instrumental in a petition-blocking effort that attempted to stall a 2019 petition effort to deregulate the monopoly utility industry in Florida.
The complaint includes several examples and identifies a person named Ginger Donat who approached a petition gatherer in Orlando and offered to pay him $2,000 “to agree to work on behalf of the Seminole Tribe” and included several text messages she sent to other petition gatherers.
In an amended lawsuit filed with the court on Tuesday, Sands was joined by Grassfire Inc., a Clearwater company that runs signature-gathering efforts. It described how during Thanksgiving week, two people wearing vests “identical to those worn by Grassfire’s circulators appeared at one of Grassfire’s training locations in Miami and began taking pictures of Grassfire circulators.” When they were confronted, they fled in their vehicle, the motion said.
In Jacksonville, other Grassfire petition gatherers who were approached by two individuals who admitted to working for Think Before You Ink. “Think Before You Ink” is a slogan adopted and used by Standing Up for Florida.
The defendants responded Tuesday with a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the plaintiffs are attempting to prevent them “from lawful hiring practices that support First Amendment free speech” and create a “non-existent and illegal no-poaching agreement in restraint of employees’ free right to choose their own employer.”
The Sands, which owns several Las Vegas casinos and has long attempted to get a foothold into Florida, has invested more than $14 million to date on the two constitutional amendments.
“There’s nothing in the amendment inconsistent with the compact,’’ McKee told the Times/Herald. “The compact says you can’t have casinos within 100 miles of the Seminole casinos or you lose the revenue share. The amendment says you have to be 130 miles away. They want a monopoly on the entire state.”
Gaming giants FanDuel and DraftKings are also sparring with the Seminole Tribe over the fate of sports betting.
The gambling agreement with the state, known as a compact, allowed the tribe to operate a monopoly on sports betting in the state, in addition to allowing it to offer craps and roulette at its existing casinos. But the compact was invalidated by a federal court last month and is now on hold pending an appeal.
FanDuel and DraftKings have poured more than $33 million into another ballot measure that competes more aggressively with the tribe. It would authorize sports betting at professional sports venues and parimutuel facilities as well as on betting apps anywhere in Florida. Their political committee, Florida Education Champions, has reportedly validated only about 160,000 signatures of the nearly 900,000 needed.
Christina Johnson, spokesperson for Florida Education Champions, which is coordinating the FanDuel and DraftKings petition effort, said that their petition gatherers have experienced similar intimidation tactics as outlined in Sands’ lawsuit.
“Florida Education Champions will be determining next steps to demand this egregious, criminal, and offensive behavior from vendors immediately cease in order to protect Florida voters, our petition gatherers, and every citizens’ rights guaranteed under the Constitution for fair and open elections,’’ she said.