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Judge orders hearing into claims that Seminole Tribe is blocking casino petition signatures

Mary Ellen Klas, Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau on

Published in News & Features

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The fate of a casino expansion petition drive rests in the hands of a Tallahassee judge who on Wednesday agreed to a 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, Dec. 10, 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 Dec. 14 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 the 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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