Dueling sides on Florida gaming report physical fights, arguments

The incidents are occurring on the front lines as two groups collecting petition signatures say a third one is trying to thwart them.
A blackjack table at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa. The Seminole Tribe, which has a gaming compact with the state, is pushing back against two petition drives seeking to put gaming expansion on the 2022 ballot.
A blackjack table at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa. The Seminole Tribe, which has a gaming compact with the state, is pushing back against two petition drives seeking to put gaming expansion on the 2022 ballot. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2020) ]
Published Dec. 22, 2021|Updated Dec. 22, 2021

The battle to expand Florida’s gambling landscape escalated to physical confrontations three times in the past month.

Petition gatherers for two groups seeking an amendment expanding gaming on the 2022 ballot were accused in Duval, Hillsborough and Broward counties of physically assaulting people handing out flyers encouraging people not to sign the petitions.

The incidents come as the Feb. 1 deadline nears for the required 891,589 signatures to get an amendment on the ballot. To certify it in time, most need to be turned over to elections officials by Dec. 30.

Three groups are part of the fight. Florida Education Champions, a political committee funded by sports betting companies DraftKings and FanDuel, is gathering petitions to authorize sports betting in-person and online.

Florida Voters in Charge, backed by the casino Las Vegas Sands, is seeking a petition to allow card rooms to convert into casinos if they are 130 miles away from Seminole Tribe properties.

Both measures would eat into the Seminole Tribe’s current monopoly on gaming — and the tribe has poured millions into the political committee Standing up for Florida to push back. A campaign from the committee encourages people to “think before you ink” and not sign the gambling petitions. It warns that such measures “would turn Florida into another Las Vegas” and “stops the Seminole compact & guaranteed billions” for the state.

Christina Johnson, a spokeswoman for Florida Education Champions, said their petition gatherers across the state have also faced harassment and intimidation from employees financed by the Seminole Tribe.

“Their only mission seems to be to continue spending tens of millions of dollars in bullying tactics, negative television ads, and misleading plebiscites to prevent Florida voters from having a say in the expansion of legal and competitive gaming,” Johnson said in a statement. “Our contractor has specifically instructed their employees not to take the bait from staged, aggressive tactics that are designed only to block our efforts.”

Rick Asnani, a spokesperson for Standing Up for Florida, called the accusations baseless and said there are no reports of wrongdoing by their employees.

“It’s more than an assault on our workers,” he said in a statement. “It’s also an assault on the voters of Florida, who deserve better than the troublemakers being shipped in to Florida by these out of state gaming companies.”

Being verbally accosted by petitioners or being filmed by them isn’t uncommon, said two of the women working for Standing up for Florida who filed police reports.

Madison, a 22-year-old in Broward County, said on Dec. 17, when she was handing out the “think before you ink” flyers, one of the petitioners on behalf of the Florida Education Champions sports betting drive became aggressive and started filming her. When Madison, who did not want to be identified by her last name, filmed back, the man knocked the phone out of her hand and hit her arm, according to a report from the Coral Springs Police Department.

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Madison recently left an abusive relationship and said the incident was traumatic for her. When she’s been back in the field, she said, she has been hesitant and hung back.

“You’re taking this too personally, it’s never that serious to a point where you need to get physically or verbally abusive,” she said.

On Dec. 16 in Hillsborough County, an employee handing out flyers was pepper sprayed by a petitioner after an argument about who was getting more public attention, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department. The arrest report does not name which organization the woman worked for, but a photo obtained by the Tampa Bay Times shows she is registered with Florida Voters in Charge.

Sarah Bascom, a spokesperson for the group, said they weren’t aware of the incident but have a zero-tolerance policy for improper behavior. Their petitioners have been the victim of confrontations, too, she said.

“Our field teams have encountered numerous issues like what you are describing on an almost daily basis, we have just chosen not to hash them out in the media and focus on continuing to gather signatures and not be distracted from our goal,” she said in a statement.

On Nov. 23, a Jacksonville woman working for Standing up for Florida said petitioners started screaming at her when she took photos of their table, after they had been making comments about her and her boyfriend, who were both working handing out flyers. One of the three petitioners tried to grab her arm and her phone, said the woman, who provided video of the incident to a Jacksonville Sheriff’s officer and was identified in a report by the agency. She requested that her name not be used for this story.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office placed the man under arrest and said he had a prior arrest for battery, according to the report.

A lawsuit on behalf of Las Vegas Sands claims that the Seminole Tribe is attempting to unfairly sabotage the petition drive by paying people not to work and hiring people to intimidate petition gatherers.

A Tallahassee judge agreed to hear evidence, but Las Vegas Sands later withdrew its motion for an emergency hearing. Defendants, including Standing up for Florida, claim the plaintiffs withdrew to hide evidence of their own impropriety, including paying by signature, cutting pay if someone didn’t gather enough petitions and using unregistered petition gatherers.

“The Defendants’ allegations are meritless, and are nothing more than an attempt to divert attention from their aggressive attempts to prevent Florida voters from having the opportunity to vote to end the Seminole Tribe’s monopoly over Florida casino gaming,” said Jim McKee, an attorney representing Florida Voters in Charge.