A Leon County judge has denied Las Vegas Sands affiliates’ request for a temporary restraining order against groups backed by the Seminole Tribe in the ballot initiative intimidation case.
The Las Vegas Sands team, which is circulating an initiative that could expand gaming in Florida, has accused the Tribe of trying to poach petition gatherers in an interference effort that is escalating as signature collecting comes down to the wire this month.
Judge Angela Dempsey of the Florida 2nd Judicial Circuit in Tallahassee denied the casino group’s initial call for the Tribe-backed team to cease what it calls harassment and intimidation against voters and petition gatherers.
Florida Voters in Charge, a group funded by Las Vegas Sands, and other affiliates of the casino requested a restraining order against the Tribe’s groups, including Standing Up for Florida and Let the Voters Decide. According to the lawsuit, the Tribe-funded groups would prevent Florida Voters in Charge from getting its initiative to expand gaming in the Sunshine State on the 2022 ballot if the groups aren’t stopped.
Dempsey denied the temporary restraining order, but she set a hearing to consider the defendants’ motion to dismiss for Friday and an evidentiary hearing on the injunction for Tuesday.
Time is running out for the campaign to collect the nearly 900,000 signatures it needs to get its initiative on the 2022 ballot. So far, it has about 200,000 signatures. While the verification deadline on those signatures is Feb. 1, Florida Voters in Charge says it must submit signatures by Dec. 30 to ensure elections supervisors verify them in time.
“There is an emergency here,” said Las Vegas Sands attorney James McKee, according to the Miami Herald. “Every day that goes by, people are being poached, people are being bought off to leave the state.”
The Las Vegas Sands-backed group argues the Tribe is harassing and intimidating people and running a sham petition-gathering effort to siphon manpower from its campaign to add to the Florida Constitution an avenue for card rooms to become casinos. POLITICO Florida first reported the “gaming turf war” last week.
The lawsuit argues the vendors operating in the Tribe’s interests circulated a “sham” petition to employ as many petition gatherers as possible so that they couldn’t work on Florida Voters in Charge’s campaign. The lawsuit also alleges the vendors paid petition gatherers per signature, a misdemeanor under Florida law.
According to the accusations, the Tribe-backed groups have unleashed people on others working for the Florida Voters in Charge campaign, harassing and intimidating them.
The lawsuit says people working in the Tribe’s interests have ripped clipboards from the hands of petition circulators, run away with stacks of their petitions, and screamed at voters to discourage them from interacting with petition circulators. The efforts have escalated in recent days, the lawsuit continues, with the Tribe’s team paying off Florida Voters in Charge’s petition gathering team to not collect signatures, “offering large sums of money to do nothing at all.”
If the interests working for the Tribe aren’t stopped, Florida Voters in Charge “will not be able to obtain the number of signatures required to place the Gaming Initiative on the 2022 ballot,” the group argues.
The founder of Cornerstone Solutions, a defendant in the lawsuit that Florida Voters in Charge claims is drawing away petition gatherers, issued a statement after Dempsey denied the temporary injunction.
“We look forward to presenting our arguments to the court on Friday on our hearing for the motion to dismiss,” Rick Asnani said. “We’re doing nothing illegal; we’re doing nothing wrong.”
The lawsuit, filed last week, follows a legal blow to Florida and the Seminole Tribe in which a court Washington nixed the Gaming Compact between the Tribe and Gov. Ron DeSantis that was set to bring billions to the state in the coming years.
The lawsuit and POLITICO’s reporting prompted St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes to call on state attorneys to investigate the Tribe and its vendors.