Consultants named in ghost candidate probe had role in gambling petition

No one has been charged with any wrongdoing amid reports of thousands of petitions not matching voter files.
The Las Vegas Sands casino sits behind the Fisherman’s Wharf in Macau, which had $45 billion in casino earnings in 2013. Macau earned $38 billion with 35 casinos in 2012, passing the United States, where 12,000 casinos took in $37.3 billion in ’12.
The Las Vegas Sands casino sits behind the Fisherman’s Wharf in Macau, which had $45 billion in casino earnings in 2013. Macau earned $38 billion with 35 casinos in 2012, passing the United States, where 12,000 casinos took in $37.3 billion in ’12.
Published Feb. 3, 2022|Updated Feb. 3, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — The political consultants who created the funding structure for the 2020 ghost candidate scandal are now in the midst of another election controversy over possibly thousands of faked signatures submitted by the campaign that is trying to bring a casino to Jacksonville.

Tallahassee-based political consultants Abigail MacIver, Dan Newman and Jeff Pitts, who run Canopy Partners, formed a subsidiary called Game Day Strategies with the goal of getting enough signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the 2022 November ballot, according to records released Tuesday by investigators for the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s office who are looking into the ghost candidate case.

MacIver and Newman worked with Tallahassee pollster and political consultant Ryan Tyson, and the effort was financed by casino giant Las Vegas Sands through a political committee named Florida Voters in Charge, documents show.

By Tuesday’s deadline for verifying petitions, the casino amendment effort appears to have fallen short. The group had submitted only 814,212 qualified petitions by the 5 p.m. deadline, according to the Florida Division of Elections. That was 77,297 fewer than the 891,509 needed for the casino amendment to be placed on the November ballot.

The goal of the petition drive was to capitalize on an opportunity created by the Seminole Tribe’s agreement with the state, known as a gaming compact, that opened the door for tribe-controlled sports betting in Florida, as well as the possibility of a Las Vegas-style casino not operated by the Seminole Tribe to be built in North Florida if voters approved it through a constitutional amendment.

While the petition campaign may have failed, an investigation into the signature-gathering process has begun.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, at the urging of local state attorneys and the statewide prosecutor, has been working with investigators in several counties since January, said Gretl Plessinger, Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesperson.

Related: Florida elections offices seeing suspected fraudulent petitions in gambling effort

For two months, supervisors of elections across the state have complained that more than half of the signatures submitted by Florida Voters in Charge did not match with voter files, included names of dead people and that the suspect and hard-to-verify petitions were consuming their time and resources.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee in December urged Attorney General Ashley Moody to investigate.

No one has been charged with any wrongdoing, but supervisors and the committee’s opponents say they suspect that organizers for Florida Voters in Charge have paid petition gatherers by the signature, rather than by the hour. The Legislature made paying by the signature illegal in 2019, making violators guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. It also requires committees to submit every petition that is collected within 30 days after the elector signs the form or be liable for fees.

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Neither Tyson, MacIver, Pitts nor Newman responded to requests for comment. None have been charged with a crime.

Tyson and MacIver have been questioned by investigators for the Miami-Dade public corruption case, according to documents obtained by the Miami Herald.

Consultants involved in new political controversy

What role the consultants — MacIver, Newman, Pitts and Tyson— played in the petition-gathering process for Sands’ casino initiative had been kept secret.

According to documents filed in Delaware, Game Day Strategies is a 501(c)(4) organization formed in June 2021. The nonprofit dark money organization is allowed by federal law to shield its donors and affiliations from disclosure.

But the political committee that hired them, Florida Voters in Charge, is required to disclose its contributions and expenditures. As of Dec. 31, Florida Voters in Charge had collected $50 million from Las Vegas Sands, and $45 million went to Game Day Strategies.

The casino company and its late owner, Sheldon Adelson, had long tried to bring a casino to Florida. His widow, Miriam Adelson, was ready to continue that quest. Within weeks of the legislative approval of the gambling compact last year, the consultants started lining up support and vendors for a petition drive and drafted an amendment that asked voters to authorize a casino at parimutuel facilities located 130 miles outside of the Seminole Tribe’s Florida facilities.

As of Dec. 31, Sands and supporters of Florida Voters in Charge had spent more than $51 million hiring petition gatherers to get the measure to the November 2022 ballot.

Sarah Bascom, spokesperson for Florida Voters in Charge, would not speak about the campaign’s strategy and would not address questions related to Game Day Strategies.

The company does not have a deep public records trail in Florida, but information has emerged about its parent company, Canopy Partners.

MacIver and Pitts had previously worked with other political operatives, including former Tyson partner Alex Alvarado.

Alvarado is under investigation by the Miami-Dade County state attorney for his involvement with former state Sen. Frank Artiles, who is facing three third-degree felony charges related to campaign-finance violations in the ghost candidate scheme to siphon votes away from three state Senate Democratic candidates in the 2020 elections. Artiles has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Documents show funding

Documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel show the role MacIver, Newman and Pitts played in a dark-money group that funded the advertising campaign for the ghost candidate scheme.

Tyson, a Republican political consultant and pollster, was a former vice president of political operations at Associated Industries of Florida., has conducted polling for Gov. Ron DeSantis and also worked closely with Florida Power & Light.

Tyson’s nonprofit has raised money from a number of large donors — whose identities are not disclosed — and made contributions to several politically active organizations, including Grow United — the committee used by Canopy Partners to fund the ghost candidate advertising — and other entities used by MacIver, Newman and Pitts, according to the documents.

Court documents obtained by the Miami Herald, as part of the Miami-Dade County investigation also show that Tyson’s nonprofit committee paid Artiles $125,000 for “research,” and paid Grow United $1.2 million.

Newman, a Democratic political consultant working with MacIver on Game Day Strategies, also previously worked for Sands lobbyist Nick Iarossi.

Little time, lots of cash

John Sowinski, an Orlando-based consultant who has worked on dozens of petition drives, said that while time was not on the side of Sands’ effort, it appears there was an attempt to overcome it by spending big on petition gatherers.

He said that traditionally vendors who hire petition gathering firms strive to have a 60-70 percent validity rate, but the casino petition was coming in with more than half of the petitions rejected, for various reasons.

Elections supervisors told the Times/Herald that there were batches of hundreds with just a small fraction acceptable.

“We are rejecting about 60 percent to 62 percent of the casino petitions,” said Wendy Link, supervisor of elections for Palm Beach County.

She said the county had to hire “an enormous number of temporary staff” at premium rates, to complete the verification of the petitions by the Tuesday deadline. By state law, any petitions received 30 days prior to the deadline must be validated by Feb. 1.

Because every fraudulent petition takes an estimated seven minutes to review, while the legitimate ones take a minute, it is costing her staff time and taxpayers money, Link said. “This is killing our budget.”

Meanwhile, Florida Voters in Charge filed an emergency motion in Leon County Circuit Court late Monday, asking the court to stop the secretary of state from certifying the information and declaring a new state law regulating petition gathering “unlawful.” Judge John C. Cooper held a hearing late Tuesday and denied the injunction.

The Sands-backed committee argues that elections officials have deemed more than 130,000 signatures invalid without offering the petition companies an opportunity to challenge the decisions or fix the signatures in question.

Bascom, the spokesperson for Florida Voters in Charge, said the 2019 changes in state law “dramatically increased the cost to run the campaign” and made it more difficult for political committees to validate the accuracy of their subcontractors.

She said the committee has gathered information and “will gladly provide it to anyone investigating the signature gatherers and allegations of fraud.”

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