Trial judge keeps feud between competing gambling efforts alive

Is poaching petition gatherers legal hard ball or unlawful interference?

By: - December 10, 2021 6:20 pm

Seminole Hard Rock Casino, Tampa. Statewide sports betting is on hold, pending a court ruling. Credit: Octavio Jones/Getty Images. May 2021

In an emergency hearing Friday regarding a campaign to amend Florida’s Constitution, advocates asked Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey to decide whether attempted sabotage of their efforts constitutes unlawful interference or just hard-ball competition.

She declined to do so, denying an emergency motion to dismiss allegations that entities working for the Seminole Tribe of Florida are illegally interfering with a petition campaign pushed by competing gambling interests.

The allegations include claims that the Seminoles are orchestrating poaching of signature-gatherers employed by companies trying to get pro-gambling amendments placed on the 2022 ballot; are paying them up to $7,000 to leave the state until the signature-gathering period ends; and are tricking voters into signing meaningless documents rather than authentic petitions they might actually have wanted to support.

“Every minute, every hour, every day, the defendants and people acting on their behalf are continuing to interfere with our petition circulators,” said Tallahassee attorney Jim McKee, representing Florida Voters In Charge and other parties backed by Las Vegas Sands, which is petitioning to amend the Florida Constitution to allow new casinos in Florida.

In July, Sands donated $17 million to Florida Voters In Charge.

“There are enormous sums of money being offered for our employees and our workers to leave the state, to do nothing … not to actually do any work for the defendants but simply to stop working for us,” McKee told the judge Friday.

McKee’s court filings include state records showing the Seminole Tribe contributed more than $10 million in late September to one of the defendants — Standing Up For Florida, a corporation founded to “prevent the expansion of gambling in Florida, including but not limited to online sports and events betting.”

State records show Standing Up For Florida paid $5.6 million in October to Cornerstone Solutions, a Florida company that provides consulting and other services to the Seminole Tribe.

West Palm Beach attorney William Shepherd argued that workers are free under Florida law to work for whomever they feel makes them the best offer. He urged the judge to dismiss the emergency request for a temporary injunction against his clients.

“An open and fluid labor market allows employees to be justly compensated,” Shepherd told the judge, elaborating on arguments he made in court filings.

Shepherd further argued that Florida Voters In Charge had failed to provide essential documents in its filings and should be required to identify the anonymous people it claims were “poached” or “paid off” by his clients.

Judge Dempsey agreed to require McKee’s clients to disclose their potential witnesses, but also ordered Shepherd’s clients to disclose theirs. She denied Shepherd’s motion to dismiss and will hear additional testimony Tuesday on McKee’s request for a temporary injunction against Shepherd’s clients.

While this litigation revolves around Las Vegas Sands and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, those names do not appear in the title of the case. Instead, the case is filed as Florida Voters In Charge, a Florida political action committee; The Human Connection, a Nevada LLC; Dunton Consulting, a New Jersey LLC; I&R Campaign Management Services, a Washington corporation; and Grassfire, a Florida LLC; versus Mark Jacoby, Christopher Pettiford, Kara Owens, Cornerstone Solutions Florida LCC; Let the Voters Decide, a Florida LLC; and Only Petition Works, a Missouri LLC.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]