TALLAHASSEE --- Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment that could allow casinos in North Florida filed an emergency motion late Thursday seeking an injunction against what they describe as efforts to “sabotage” petition gathering.
The political committee Florida Voters in Charge, which is primarily financed by the Las Vegas Sands Corp., and other plaintiffs asked a Leon County circuit judge to issue a temporary injunction. That came a day after they filed a lawsuit alleging “tortious interference” related to efforts by the Seminole Tribe of Florida to prevent the proposed constitutional amendment from getting on the November 2022 ballot.
The lawsuit contends that people and firms acting on behalf of the tribe have interfered with petition gathering through harassment and “paying off” workers to stop collecting signatures for the proposed amendment. The lawsuit and motion say that the interference has jeopardized Florida Voters in Charge’s efforts to submit a required 891,589 valid petition signatures to the state by a Feb. 1 deadline.
“Absent injunctive relief from this court, an unlawful concerted effort by the defendants to undermine and obstruct Florida’s constitutional amendment process will be successful, and defendants will be rewarded for flagrantly disregarding principles of law and common decency,” Thursday’s motion said.
But Rick Asnani, president of Cornerstone Solutions Florida, LLC, a firm that is one of the defendants in the case, disputed the allegations.
“Anyone can sue for anything and this is nothing more than a nuisance lawsuit filed by a competitor designed to deflect blame for a lack of results,” Asnani said in a prepared statement Friday to The News Service of Florida. “It seems like a last minute political tactic. Our team members are trained to follow the rules.”
The lawsuit is the latest development in a series of battles about Florida’s lucrative gambling industry.
The tribe has long been a major player in the industry, and its role grew in May when lawmakers signed off on a multibillion-dollar deal that, in part, allowed the Seminoles to control online sports betting in the state. Siding with two pari-mutuels that filed a legal challenge, a federal judge last month struck down the deal, known as a compact. The tribe has filed an appeal.
Meanwhile, two political committees --- both backed by tens of millions of dollars from gambling companies --- are trying to get initiatives on the 2022 ballot to expand gambling. One of the proposals, led by the committee Florida Education Champions and backed by online platforms DraftKings and FanDuel, would legalize sports betting at professional sports venues, pari-mutuel facilities and statewide via mobile applications.
The other effort, spearheaded by Florida Voters in Charge, would open the door for casinos at existing gambling facilities in North Florida. Such casinos would not offer sports betting but would have games now barred at the existing facilities.
The tribe has opposed both measures and acknowledged this fall that it had been paying consultants to circulate a petition asking voters to “support the Seminole compact and billions in new revenue for the people of Florida.” The tribe-backed petition drive was not intended to put a measure on the ballot and, as a result, did not have to comply with rules governing citizens’ initiatives.
Backers of the proposed gambling amendments maintained that the tribe’s efforts were making it harder to hire and retain workers in the cutthroat political ballot-initiative arena because the Seminoles were able to pay by the signature, which can dramatically boost signature gatherers’ earnings. Groups leading citizens’ initiatives are not allowed to pay by the signature.
But the allegations in the newly filed lawsuit go further than tribe-supported efforts to collect signatures for a rival petition. The lawsuit contends that Standing Up for Florida, a political committee chaired by Asnani that has received $10 million from the tribe, and other defendants have taken a series of actions to improperly try to thwart petition gathering.
“Defendants’ improper and unlawful efforts to intimidate, harass and ‘pay off’ petition circulators employed by plaintiffs severely undermine plaintiffs’ capacity to obtain the required signatures by the February 1, 2022, deadline and jeopardizes the ability of plaintiffs to obtain the necessary number of signatures,” the motion for a temporary injunction said. “The harm suffered by plaintiffs as a result of defendants’ efforts cannot be adequately compensated by money damages alone, and it is impossible to quantify the damages suffered by plaintiffs --- and the voters of Florida --- as a result of their being improperly deprived of the right to conduct a valid and lawful citizens’ initiative process through defendants’ unlawful conduct.”
Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey had not scheduled a hearing as of mid-afternoon Friday, according to an online docket. Also, the defendants in the case --- the Standing Up for Florida political committee, three firms and three individuals --- had not filed documents.
The plaintiffs in the case are the Florida Voters in Charge committee and three signature-gathering firms. Florida Voters in Charge must submit the nearly 900,000 required signatures to county elections supervisors by Dec. 31, so they can be reviewed and processed before the Feb. 1 state deadline.
As of Friday afternoon, the state Division of Elections had received 202,342 valid petition signatures for the initiative, according to the agency’s website.
--- News Service senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.