Florida gambling initiative legal fight dialed back

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 A political committee behind a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow casino gambling in North Florida on Saturday dropped an emergency effort to block entities linked to the Seminole Tribe from interfering with signature gatherers.

The Florida Voters In Charge committee’s move also put a halt to a scheduled Tuesday hearing in the lawsuit, which accuses businesses, individuals and a committee tied to the Seminoles of trying to “sabotage” the petition drive, in part by paying people to stop gathering signatures.

Florida Voters in Charge is racing to meet a Feb. 1 deadline to submit nearly 900,000 signatures to the state to make it onto the 2022 ballot. Because elections supervisors need time to validate the signatures, the committee needs to turn in the petitions by Dec. 30.

Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey on Wednesday refused to immediately halt the efforts backed by the Seminoles but on Friday also rejected the defendants’ request to have the lawsuit dismissed.

Florida Voters in Charge filed a notice with the court Saturday that it was withdrawing an emergency motion for an injunction to stop the alleged interference and canceling a hearing on the motion scheduled for Tuesday. Defendants in the lawsuit include Marc Jacoby; Kara Owens; Cornerstone Solutions Florida LLC; Let the Voters Decide, LLC; and Standing Up for Florida, Inc., a political committee backed by the Seminoles.

Florida Voters in Charge is “on pace” to gather the necessary signatures to make it onto next year’s ballot, spokeswoman Sarah Bascom said in a prepared statement Saturday.

“We will not allow any distractions, legal maneuvers or the tribe’s egregious blocking tactics to distract us from that mission. Therefore, we have decided to withdraw our request for an emergency injunction so our team members can remain focused on gathering signatures and not be held up in the courtroom,” Bascom said in an email. “With our effort reaching this critical stage and our signature gathering progress in full swing, we will not be deterred by legal maneuvers seeking to bring our on-the-ground team members out of the field and tie them up in legal proceedings.”

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of “tortious interference” related to the attempts to block the proposal from going before voters.

“As we march to the finish line, we will continue to pursue our legal options to expose and seek damages from those that have intentionally and aggressively attempted to thwart the constitutional signature gathering process,” Bascom said.

But Cornerstone president Rick Asnani said the withdrawal of the emergency motion “is no surprise.”

“We continue to do the right thing by Floridians while out-of-state companies are wasting Florida’s time and tax dollars with frivolous emergencies of their own making,” Asnani said in a prepared statement Saturday.

The battle over the proposed constitutional amendment pits casino behemoth Las Vegas Sands Corp. against the Seminole Tribe, whose Tampa casino is one of the nation’s most lucrative.

Las Vegas Sands has poured at least $27 million into Florida Voters in Charge, according to the state Division of Elections website. The committee had spent nearly $27.5 million on the petition drive as of Nov. 30, the website shows.

The rival Standing up for Florida committee, which has received at least $20 million from the tribe since Sept. 1, has paid Cornerstone more than $11.4 million since Oct. 1, according to the state elections website.

The Florida Voters in Charge initiative would allow voters to decide whether to allow pari-mutuel operators in North Florida to add casino games to their operations. The measure, if approved, would open the door to Las Vegas-style casinos along the Interstate 10 corridor in North Florida and is geared toward a facility in the Jacksonville area.

Dempsey on Friday ordered the plaintiffs to provide to the defendants a list of names of workers who allegedly had faced interference, setting in motion what could have been a flurry of depositions and legal preparations in advance of Tuesday’s hearing.

William Shepherd, a West Palm Beach attorney with the firm Holland & Knight who represents the defendants, argued Friday that the plaintiffs are trying to stifle competition.

“What plaintiffs are trying to do is to tether employees who work for them to be bound by them and to them until the plaintiffs say they can leave, and that’s prohibited,” Shepherd said. “Florida is proud of its free markets for labor, and employees have the ability to take a better job that will pay them more money or they have the ability to bargain that right away, in a written restrictive covenant.”

But Jim McKee, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called Shepherd’s arguments “absolutely untrue.”

“The idea that what we’re trying to do here is restrict lawful competition is just downright absurd,” McKee said.

The lawsuit alleges “parties acting on behalf of the Seminoles have engaged in concerted and aggressive efforts to harass and intimidate individuals who are exercising their legal right to obtain signatures necessary to place a citizen initiative on the Florida 2022 ballot.”

The legal complaint includes details of how signature gatherers working on the initiative were offered money to stop collecting petitions and leave the state until Feb. 1, the deadline for signatures to be submitted.

Workers are being paid “not to actually do any work for the defendants but simply agree to stop working for us in exchange for a payoff,” McKee told Dempsey on Friday. The payments “far exceed what the market would dictate” for signature gatherers, who are asked to prove that they’ve been working on the ballot initiative to get the cash, he argued.

The lawsuit alleges people associated with the defendants have grabbed clipboards away from signature gatherers, followed workers to their hotel rooms and screamed at voters to keep them from signing petitions.