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Casino initiative opponents fire back in lawsuit

 A patron plays a slot machine at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida.
Wilfredo Lee
A patron plays a slot machine at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida.

Legal wrangling escalated Friday about signature gathering for a proposed constitutional amendment that would open the door for casinos in North Florida, with lawyers for entities linked to the Seminole Tribe accusing backers of the ballot initiative of breaking the law.

Florida Voters in Charge, a political committee behind the casino proposal, is racing to meet a Feb. 1 deadline to submit nearly 900,000 signatures to state elections officials to make it onto the 2022 ballot.

The committee, financed largely by casino behemoth Las Vegas Sands Corp., filed a lawsuit Dec. 1 alleging that businesses, individuals and a committee tied to the Seminoles are trying to “sabotage” the petition drive, in part by paying people to stop gathering signatures.

Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey on Dec. 10 refused to dismiss the lawsuit, which accuses the defendants of “tortious interference.” But Dempsey ordered the plaintiffs to quickly provide the names of workers who had been targeted and contracts.

The following day, the plaintiffs withdrew a petition for an emergency injunction, though the underlying lawsuit remained pending.

On Friday, lawyers for the defendants filed a motion seeking to enforce Dempsey’s order on turning over information and alleging that some of the plaintiffs had violated state elections laws in the petition drive.

“Plaintiffs are brazenly violating Florida election law. This raises serious integrity questions. 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,” West Palm Beach attorney William Shepherd, who represents the defendants, wrote.

The motion said that contracts provided to the defendants were heavily redacted, but the plaintiffs “offered no explanations for the redactions.” It accused backers of the ballot initiative of intentionally trying to hide the 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 said.

The motion pointed to the website of Grassfire LLC, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The website showed that workers would be paid $25 per hour plus bonuses of up to $2,000, depending on the number of signatures they collected in a week. Florida law makes it illegal to pay petition gatherers by the signature for ballot initiatives.

But Jim McKee, a Tallahassee attorney who represents the plaintiffs, disputed the accusations.

The defendants’ “allegations are meritless, and are nothing more than an attempt to divert attention from their aggressive attempts to prevent Florida voters from having the opportunity to vote to end the Seminole Tribe’s monopoly over Florida casino gaming,” McKee said in a prepared statement.

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.

Laws accused Grassfire owner Lee Vasche of paying a “bonus” to petition gatherers to sidestep the law banning them from being paid by the signature. Laws also alleged that Vasche instructed workers to destroy petitions that could be rejected or to fill in missing information on petition forms, in violation of state law.

Laws’ affidavit said he stopped working with Vasche in October “based on several grievances I had with Lee’s operation including violations of Florida law.”

But a federal lawsuit filed by Grassfire in November alleged that Laws was offered $1 million by “an organization opposed” to the casino gambling proposal to stop working on the ballot initiative “and to sabotage Grassfire’s campaign.” Laws allegedly rejected the initial offer but “negotiated and accepted” a subsequent offer in October, the legal complaint alleged.

The lawsuit accused Laws of “hiring away circulators,” “spreading lies to circulators and others about Grassfire,” “ruining Grassfire’s relationships with individuals that own property on which Grassfire is allowed to solicit signatures” and working on “a dummy petition” backed by the Seminoles.

In his prepared statement Friday, McKee highlighted Laws’ testimony.

“It is no surprise that one of the individuals relied upon as support for the allegations is Larry Laws. Mr. Laws is currently the subject of a federal court lawsuit alleging he received a substantial amount of money, believed to be in excess of $1 million, in exchange for his agreement to attempt to sabotage efforts to place the casino gaming amendment on the ballot,” McKee said.

The motion filed by the defendants Friday also alleged that whistleblowers working for the petition initiative claimed circulators’ hours were cut to match the number of petitions they had gathered, meaning they were being paid per signature in violation of the state law.

The defendants also alleged that whistleblowers said supporters of the ballot initiative were using unregistered signature gatherers “to illegally boost their workforce.”

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.

As of late Friday afternoon, the state Division of Elections had received 287,101 valid petition signatures for the casino initiative. Florida Voters in Charge needs to submit 891,589 by the Feb. 1 deadline.

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Dara Kam - News Service of Florida