The legal fight over a proposed constitutional amendment to expand casino gaming in Florida has now escalated once again. Lawyers for entities linked to the Seminole Tribe are accusing backers of the ballot initiative, largely financed by Las Vegas Sands, of breaking the law.
Sands-backed political committee Florida Voters in Charge, which is behind the casino proposal, is currently racing to meet a February 1 deadline to submit nearly 900,000 signatures to state officials to make it to the 2022 ballot. The amendment would allow existing card rooms across Florida to become casinos if they are located 130 miles from tribe-owned facilities.
The controversy first sparked when lawyers for the political committee filed a lawsuit on December 1 alleging parties tied to the Seminoles were attempting to sabotage the petition drive by, among other means, paying people to stop gathering signatures.
While on December 10 Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey refused to dismiss the lawsuit, she did order the plaintiffs to provide names of workers who had been targeted, along with their contracts. Soon after, the plaintiffs withdrew a petition for an emergency injunction, with the underlying lawsuit still pending.
But now, last Friday, lawyers for the defendants filed a motion seeking to enforce Dempsey’s order on turning over information, while alleging that some of the plaintiffs had violated state elections laws in the petition drive, reports WUSF.
“Plaintiffs are brazenly violating Florida election law. This raises serious integrity questions,” reads the motion. “As it pertains to the instant case, while the plaintiffs have accused defendants of hiring plaintiffs’ employees, the underlying employee contracts at issue are based on an illegal scheme, so the contracts themselves are illegal and therefore … unenforceable.”
The motion claims that contracts provided to the defendants were heavily redacted but, it is being argued, plaintiffs offered “no explanations” for said redactions. Defendants are accusing backers of the ballot initiative of intentionally trying to hide information.
“Upon closer analysis, including review of one of the plaintiffs’ own websites, it appears these redactions were done to hide the illegal compensation scheme for how the plaintiffs pay their circulators,” the motion retrieved by local media reports.
The motion points to the website of Grassfire LLC, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The website showed that workers would be paid $25 per hour, with additional payments of up to $2,000 depending on the number of signatures collected in a week. But Florida law makes it illegal to pay petition gatherers by the signature for the ballot initiative, defendants point out.
However, plaintiffs are now counterarguing this accusation. According to Jim McKee, attorney representing the plaintiffs, the allegations are “meritless.” He further described them as an attempt to divert attention “from their aggressive attempts to prevent Florida voters” from having the opportunity to vote to end Seminole’s monopoly over Florida casino gaming.
Friday’s motion also included an affidavit by Steven Larry Laws, a Pinellas County resident who worked on the ballot initiative with Grassfire this year, reports South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Laws accused Grassfire of paying a “bonus” to petition gatherers to sidestep the law banning them from being paid by the signature.
Moreover, Laws also alleged that Grassfire owner Lee Vasche instructed workers to destroy petitions that could be rejected, or to fill in missing information on petition forms. This would constitute a violation of state law. Laws’ affidavit said he stopped working with Grassfire in October, “based on several grievances” with Vasche’s operation.
McKee said that it was “no surprise” that one of the individuals relied upon as support for the allegations was Laws, who the attorney for the plaintiffs described as the subject of a federal court lawsuit alleging he received “a substantial amount of money” in exchange for his “agreement to attempt to sabotage efforts” to place the amendment on the ballot.
But the motion filed by the defendants last Friday also brings up additional accusations. It is being alleged that whistleblowers working for the petition initiative claimed circulators’ hours were cut to match the number of petitions they had gathered, thus meaning they were being paid per signature, in violation of Florida law.