TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- A court battle involving a proposed constitutional amendment that would open the door to casinos in North Florida continued to escalate Monday, with a committee linked to the Seminole Tribe accusing backers of the measure of "engaging in a widespread, election-law conspiracy" in the race to gather enough signatures to place the initiative on the November ballot.
The allegations are the latest twist in a lawsuit filed by Florida Voters in Charge, a political committee financed largely by Las Vegas Sands Corp., that accuses the Seminoles of illegally trying to "sabotage" the petition drive by poaching workers and paying people to stop gathering signatures.
But the rival Standing Up for Florida committee, which is funded by the tribe, and that committee's chairman, Pradeep "Rick" Asnani, slapped back Monday, asking a Leon County circuit judge to decide that the signatures gathered thus far have been "illegally obtained" and should be scrapped.
Documents filed on behalf of Asnani and his committee alleged that Florida Voters in Charge and its contractors "are corrupting the petition process throughout Florida by blatantly violating civil and criminal laws in an effort to secure illicit access to Florida's ballots."
The documents, filed by West Palm Beach attorney William Shepherd, allege that petition gatherers are being paid by the signature, a violation of Florida law. The court filings also maintain that a contractor illegally disposed of petitions that were incomplete or erroneous to avoid being financially penalized by the Florida Voters in Charge committee.
The accusations Monday came as Florida Voters in Charge faces a Feb. 1 deadline to submit nearly 900,000 signatures to make it onto the November ballot. According to the state Division of Elections website, the committee had submitted 458,608 signatures as of Monday.
The ballot initiative would ask 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. Las Vegas Sands has contributed nearly $50 million to the effort.
The Seminoles, who operate the only Las Vegas-style casinos in Florida, have launched a major attack against the initiative, dropping at least $20 million into the Standing Up for Florida committee and spending millions of dollars on advertising to dissuade voters from signing onto the ballot measure.
Florida Voters in Charge filed the lawsuit Dec. 1, alleging "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." Defendants in the case include Asnani and his committee; Marc Jacoby; Kara Owens; Cornerstone Solutions Florida LLC; and Let the Voters Decide, LLC.
The lawsuit includes details of how signature gatherers working on the initiative were offered money to stop collecting petitions and leave the state until Feb. 1.
Allegations of wrongdoing on both sides have swirled in the case, but the documents filed Monday on behalf of Standing Up for Florida and Asnani ratcheted up the stakes --- and the rhetoric.
"The Constitution of Florida is under attack," Shepherd wrote in one of the documents. "The counter-defendants' (Florida Voters in Charge and other parties) illicit conduct is an attack on Florida's election integrity."
An "emergency motion for a temporary injunction to prevent election fraud" filed Monday asks Dempsey to block Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley and Secretary of State Laurel Lee "from giving legal effect to all illegally-obtained initiative petitions" related to the casino proposal.
The allegations Monday mirrored accusations in a legal challenge filed by Shepherd in Palm Beach County circuit court. A judge dismissed the lawsuit on Dec. 17.
The documents provide details about Florida Voters in Charge contractors and include testimony from former employees or petition-gathering contractors who accused businesses and individuals working on the ballot initiative of illegally paying employees by the signature, shredding incomplete petitions and "forging signatures on petitions all over Florida."
"These companies only care about gathering signatures, no matter what it takes," Shepherd wrote.
The documents also accused Grassfire LLC, one of the plaintiffs with Florida Voters in Charge in the lawsuit, of "mistreatment" of its employees by docking workers' pay if they fail to meet signature quotas, refusing to cover "the agreed-upon per diem for lunch," and evicting "at least one employee" from the hotel where she was housed.
"One former Grassfire manager reports that she received death threats from her team members when Grassfire refused to pay for their worked hours because of a lack of signatures," one of the court filings said.
The lawsuit filed by Florida Voters in Charge alleges people associated with the initiative's opponents have grabbed clipboards away from signature gatherers, followed workers to their hotel rooms and screamed at voters to keep them from signing petitions.
(©2022 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.)
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