TALLAHASSEE — Florida could be in the midst of one of the largest cases of election-related fraud in recent history.
Across the state, elections supervisors say they have been sent thousands of fraudulent petition forms supporting a constitutional amendment to expand casino gaming in the state.
Although the forms are supposed to reflect real Floridians voicing support for a change to the state’s constitution, many include the names of dead people or the forged signatures of real voters.
The petition drive is financed by Las Vegas Sands, whose late owner, Sheldon Adelson, was a megadonor to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Republican party. Miriam Adelson, Sheldon Adelson’s widow, has a majority stake in the company. Las Vegas Sands has spent $49.5 million trying to get an amendment on the November ballot that would allow card rooms in Florida to be converted to Vegas-style casinos.
The number of suspicious or hard-to-verify petitions have buried county elections supervisors and their staff trying to sort through them. In one case, Marion County Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox found both his and his wife’s signatures forged on petition forms.
Opponents of the measure have also accused organizers of fueling their effort by paying petition gatherers by the signature, rather than by the hour, which DeSantis pushed the Legislature to make illegal in 2019.
The petition activity caught the attention of Secretary of State Laurel Lee last year. In a Dec. 3 letter, her office referred claims of fraudulent petitions by six county elections supervisors to Attorney General Ashley Moody, warning her not to wait for a criminal investigation to stop “additional fraudulent acts against voters.” Lee’s office is reviewing the petitions and considering whether to levy fines.
The committee created to get the proposed amendment on the ballot is Florida Voters in Charge.
“The idea that our committee would purposely submit fraudulent petitions is ridiculous,” said Jim McKee, the attorney for the committee. “This would not help our effort in any way.”
He noted that state law requires them to submit every petition they receive, and they’re not allowed to screen those petitions.
“Every petition identifies the individual who collected it and we would encourage law enforcement to investigate any petitions of concern,” McKee said in a statement.
Election fraud has been a popular refrain among Republicans and DeSantis, who has been under pressure by some in his party to audit Florida’s 2020 election. DeSantis has resisted, instead calling for tougher penalties for some forms of election fraud, the creation of a 52-person unit to investigate those crimes and a ban on vote-by-mail ballot drop boxes.
DeSantis has not made much public mention of this suspected fraud, although his administration is aware of the issue.
Lee’s three-page letter, written by Lee’s assistant general counsel, mentioned hundreds of suspected fraudulent petitions submitted by more than a dozen petition gatherers across the state from Oct. 14 to Dec. 1 last year. (The letter did not specify which petitions are suspected of being fraudulent, but supervisors said the casino gaming amendment is the source of suspicious activity.)
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The letter noted a provision of state law that would allow the attorney general to stop the suspected fraud without having to wait for law enforcement to build a criminal case.
State law on initiatives allows the secretary of state to refer cases to the attorney general if the secretary “reasonably believes” someone, or some entity, has broken state law. The letter notes that under the statute, when the secretary of state makes such a finding, the attorney general can seek an injunction in court to temporarily, or permanently, stop that illegal activity.
“While law enforcement and state attorney’s efforts continue,” the letter to Moody’s office states, “it may be appropriate and beneficial to voters and supervisors of elections offices to seek injunctive or other relief to prohibit the circulators at issue from continuing to circulate petitions and committing additional fraudulent acts against voters.”
Moody hasn’t taken such action, however, and her spokespeople did not answer when asked why. They said that once the Department of Law Enforcement reviews the case, the Office of Statewide Prosecutor would review their findings.
Organizers for Las Vegas Sands said they were not aware of any investigation by the attorney general’s office. (For years, Sands’ lead lobbyist has been Nick Iarossi, considered one of the closest lobbyists in Florida to Gov. Ron DeSantis and whose client portfolio has grown since DeSantis came into office.)
The secretary of state’s letter also said it was referring the examples to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A spokesperson for the Department of Law Enforcement said it was providing “investigative assistance” to state attorney Bill Gladson, whose district covers five counties including Marion. Gladson confirmed he’s assigned an investigator to look into it. Prosecutors in Duval County confirmed they are investigating the petitions as well.
A spokesperson for DeSantis’ office said that the matter had been referred to Moody’s office and the state Department of Law Enforcement, adding that “the state office is not involved in political fundraising.”
Illegal payments-per-signature alleged
Over the last year, organizers for Las Vegas Sands have been in a literal street fight with the Seminole Tribe over its gambling initiative.
While Las Vegas Sands has poured millions into gathering signatures, the Tribe, which has a monopoly on casino-style gambling in Florida, has been spending millions to stop it, hiring away the Sands’ petition circulators and paying people to observe and record signature-gatherers.
Las Vegas Sands’ amendment 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, a description widely believed to be intended for a casino in Jacksonville.
Sands is also proposing another amendment that would authorize three new casinos to conduct Las Vegas-style games in Florida.
The Tribe paid a Palm Beach-based firm, Cornerstone Solutions, $6 million through its political committee, Standing Up For Florida, and bought $4 million in campaign-style media ads to oppose the Sands effort. The committee launched a separate petition drive, known as a plebiscite, that asked voters to show support for their cause but was not intended to change state law. Sands accused the Tribe of using the plebiscite to confuse voters.
Petitioners faced a Dec. 30 deadline 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 measures could be placed on the ballot by the Feb. 1 deadline. So far, they have about 566,000, an indication they likely won’t make it, although supervisors have until the end of January to count signatures.
The infusion of unprecedented amounts of money into the petition-gathering process has led to fights at gas stations and parking lots across the state and accusations from both sides of intimidation and abuse.
Organizers for the Tribe have also alleged in court documents that organizers for Las Vegas Sands have been paying petition circulators based on the number of signatures they collect, which is a first-degree misdemeanor under state law punishable by up to a year in jail. They’ve produced contracts and affidavits from people who worked on the company’s petition drive.
One of those people signed an affidavit stating he was hired to gather signatures, and his contract stated he was paid $450,000 for every 25,000 petitions he submitted, up to $2.7 million.
Another person, Larry Laws, was hired by a different company to produce signature-gatherers for the effort. His affidavit states that while the contracts stated that employees would be paid hourly, instead of per signature, petition circulators would also be paid a “bonus” of $2,500 for every 300 signatures, which was not in the contract.
In response, McKee said, “All of (Florida Voters in Charge’s) contracts comply with Florida law.”
Laws also said that he was instructed by the company that hired him to destroy at least 2,000 petitions that they suspected would be rejected by local elections supervisors. The petitions were from 15 counties in the state. Instead of destroying them, his affidavit says that he sent them to the secretary of state. (Laws stopped working for the Sands contractor, and he said he’s now working on a variety of other jobs, including helping the Seminole Tribe.)
In an interview with the Times/Herald, Laws said he’s been in the petition-gathering business for decades, and helped gather signatures for many successful ballot initiatives, including the 2018 amendment allowing people with felony convictions to vote and the 2020 amendment raising the state’s minimum wage.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this, in the money that’s been spent, in my whole 25 years,” Laws said.
He said that since sending the petitions to the secretary of state in late November, he hasn’t heard back from that office or from any law enforcement agency.
Laws estimates that the contractors he hired helped collect at least 200,000 signatures for the effort. He said all of those were collected by paying petitioners per signature.
Elections supervisors overwhelmed
Thousands of suspected fraudulent petition forms have inundated local elections supervisors, who are responsible for verifying they were completed and signed by a Floridian.
Wilcox, the Marion County elections supervisor, said his forged signature, and that of his wife, were on petition forms submitted to his office in November.
He’s mailed letters to about 900 voters in his county whose names are on petition forms that are suspected of being fraudulent.
Petition gatherers have been dropping off bundles of forms by the thousands at his office, but often more than 80 percent can’t be verified, he said.
“Somebody will do 300 petitions and have two acceptances. It’s just astronomical,” said Wilcox, who also leads the Florida Supervisors of Elections, the organization representing the officials overseeing elections in the state’s 67 counties.
Considering the number of petitions people are dropping off, and how many are suspected fraudulent, some petition circulators could face serious jail time, he said. Each petition includes the name of the circulator, along with an attestation the information is true under penalty of perjury, a violation of which is a third-degree felony carrying up to five years in prison.
“You put 20 of these together, oh my gosh, people are going to go to jail for 20, 30, 40 years,” Wilcox said.
The secretary of state’s memo included suspected complaint forms from Duval, Gulf, Pinellas, Marion, Brevard and Bradford counties. The memo mentions that some forms include the names of dead people. In some cases, a petition circulator signed another circulator’s forms. The Duval supervisor referred more than 1,200 petition forms to local prosecutors, her memo states.
In Broward County, Elections Supervisor Joe Scott said about half of the more than 125,000 petitions he’s received for the gaming initiative have been rejected. He doesn’t know how many, if any, are fraudulent, but he said he met with his state attorney on Wednesday to discuss a potential investigation.
Rejected petitions take about three to four times longer to process than verified petitions, he said. All supervisors charge a fee to process those forms, and both he and Wilcox said they would be raising rates because of the sheer number of rejected petitions received in the last year.
“That’s the biggest concern,” Scott said. “They’re making it harder for other people to do petition drives because they’re raising the cost for everybody.”