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Legal wrangling continues over Jacksonville-area casino

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

It’s been almost two months since backers of an effort to bring Las Vegas-style casino gambling to North Florida failed to submit enough signatures in time to make it onto the November ballot, but legal jousting over the proposal hasn’t abated.

The fight over the proposed constitutional amendment has turned into a throw-down between Las Vegas Sands Corp. and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, along with people, businesses and other entities aligned with the gambling behemoths.

Las Vegas Sands contributed at least $73 million to Florida Voters In Charge, the political committee that sponsored the casino initiative, while the Seminoles spent at least $40 million to keep it from going before voters, according to the state Division of Elections website.

After falling short of submitting nearly 900,000 valid petition signatures by a Feb. 1 deadline, the Sands-backed committee filed a lawsuit asking Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper to extend the deadline. Cooper last month denied the emergency request, leading the committee to file a notice of appeal at the 1st District Court of Appeal. Florida Voters in Charge dropped the appeal on Thursday, but the underlying lawsuit continues.

The lawsuit, which names Secretary of State Laurel Lee as a defendant, accuses elections officials of sitting on piles of petitions signed by voters in support of the proposal. The initiative was designed to allow existing pari-mutuel cardroom operators in North Florida to offer Las Vegas-style games. The Seminoles Tribe is the sole casino operator in the state.

Florida Voters in Charge’s lawsuit also challenged signature-matching requirements used by local elections officials, arguing that “tens of thousands of signatures” were rejected without giving voters the opportunity to “cure” signature mismatches. The legal challenge also alleged that certain Florida laws governing the ballot-initiative process are unconstitutional.

Cooper in February allowed the Seminoles, a tribe-funded political committee known as Standing Up for Florida Inc. and the committee’s chairman, Pradeep “Rick” Asnani, to intervene in the lawsuit.

In a March 22 motion for summary judgment, attorneys for Standing up for Florida said Cooper should reject the plaintiffs’ arguments that elections officials failed to review the petitions in a prompt manner as required by law.

“Plaintiffs were on notice, both by statute and rule, that there was no assurance their petitions would be processed by February 1 if they were submitted after January 3. They should not now be heard to complain that some petitions submitted after January 3 might not have been processed. In any case, the issue is academic at best,” lawyer William Shepherd wrote.

The motion also relied on an analysis conducted by Jeremiah Whitson, who specializes in Florida election and petition data, that was based on a public records request of the state’s 67 elections supervisors.

Whitson’s analysis found that elections officials ultimately processed all petitions that were submitted before the 5 p.m. deadline on Feb. 1. The total number of petitions verified by the supervisors was 859,675, which was short of the 891,603 signatures required for ballot placement, the analysis found. Whitson’s report also said the verification rate of petitions supporting the initiative was 37.17%. In contrast, verification rates for petitions that made the threshold for ballot placement in the past “have typically exceeded 50 percent,” according to Whitson.

On Wednesday, Florida Voters in Charge filed a motion for a protective order “to protect plaintiffs and seven nonparties from annoyance, harassment, and undue burden resulting from overbroad and irrelevant discovery requests served by, or proposed to be served by,” Standing Up for Florida and Asnani.

The motion noted that the main parties in the case — the plaintiffs and the secretary of state — have not served any discovery requests for information and “are actively negotiating a factual stipulation and proposed summary judgment briefing schedule that would avoid altogether the need for formal discovery.”

The intervenors “have served extraordinarily broad discovery requests” on the plaintiffs and plan on serving “equally broad document subpoenas” on seven nonparties, wrote Jesse Panuccio, who represents Florida Voters in Charge and its chairman, William Spicola.

“Intervenors have offered little basis for their legal interest in the questions at issue in this case, and instead have said their interest in the proceedings is purely as plaintiffs’ political opponents. In furtherance of this spurious interest — but not in furtherance of the prompt resolution of the legal questions that govern this election law case — intervenors now seek to turn this matter into a scorched-earth discovery fight so that they can inflict financial harm and delay on their political opponents,” Panuccio argued.

Highlights of the grudge match between Las Vegas Sands and the Seminoles over the past few months include accusations of death threats against workers collecting signatures for the ballot proposal, allegations that backers of the measure violated state law by paying petition gatherers by the signature and feuding over the tribe’s efforts to “buy off” signature gatherers before the February deadline.

Under Florida law, the signatures are only valid for one election cycle, so supporters of the casino proposal would have to start from scratch for placement on the 2024 ballot.

As the legal fight over the casino initiative drags on, Las Vegas Sands CEO Rob Goldstein appeared to acknowledge recently that the effort to make it on this year’s ballot is doomed.

“In Florida, we failed recently. We had a disappointing outcome, but I think it’s in early innings. We will be in Florida, in my opinion. It’s just a question of when it happens,” Goldstein told The Las Vegas Review-Journal this month.

Dara Kam is the Senior Reporter of The News Service Of Florida.