It was another rough day in court for the Seminole Tribe on Friday (January 21) as a Florida judge denied a hearing on the tribe’s claim that Las Vegas Sands is fraudulently collecting signatures in a campaign to legalize commercial casinos in the Sunshine State.
Angela Dempsey, a circuit court judge in Leon County where the state capital of Tallahassee is located, announced her decision immediately after listening to almost an hour and a half of arguments by attorneys via Zoom.
“Because I’m finding there’s no private cause of action, I don’t see how [the Seminole Tribe’s claim], could be amended in any fashion to present a cause of action. So [my ruling] will be with prejudice,” or final, Dempsey said.
Despite the victory, Las Vegas Sands still must obtain more than 278,000 signatures from Florida voters by February 1 for its casino initiative to qualify for the election ballot on November 8.
As of Sunday (January 23), the website for the Florida Division of Elections reported Florida Voters In Charge, the political action committee (PAC) working for Las Vegas Sands, had collected 612,800 of the 891,589 signatures required.
Florida Voters In Charge raised more than $51m through the end of December in support of its initiative, according to Florida Division of Elections records. If it makes the ballots and is approved by 60 percent of voters, cardroom facilities in certain parts of Florida could be converted into full-fledged casino-resorts provided they make a minimum capital investment of $250m.
Judge Dempsey’s ruling is the latest legal setback for the Seminoles who are battling not only Las Vegas Sands’ casino campaign but also an online sports-betting referendum initiative by DraftKings and FanDuel.
Florida Education Champions, the PAC formed by DraftKings and FanDuel, had collected 414,575 signatures for their sports-betting proposal as of Sunday.
After their historic gambling compact with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sailed through the state legislature last May, the Seminoles are on a losing streak in the courts.
In November, U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich of Washington, D.C. nullified the compact which allowed the Seminoles to accept bets online even if they came from gamblers located outside the tribe’s land.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced on Wednesday (January 19) it will appeal Friedrich’s ruling.
The legal dispute between Las Vegas Sands and the Seminoles began last month when the Las Vegas casino company sued the tribe for allegedly interfering with the collection of signatures illegally by, among other things, poaching workers who were collecting signatures for the initiative.
On December 10, Judge Dempsey denied a request by the Seminoles to dismiss Las Vegas Sands’ lawsuit.
About a week later, the Seminoles asked Florida Circuit Court Judge Paige Gillman of Palm Beach County to reject the Las Vegas Sands lawsuit but were unsuccessful.
The Seminoles responded earlier this month, using their own PAC — Standing Up For Florida — to file the counterclaim against Las Vegas Sands which Dempsey rejected on Friday.
Jim McKee, the Tallahassee attorney for Las Vegas Sands’ PAC — Florida Voters In Charge — on Friday repeatedly described the Seminoles’ counterclaim as “absurd” and “ridiculous.”
After being rejected in Palm Beach, the Seminoles were asking Dempsey for “a do-over,” McKee said.
Eduardo Lombard, the attorney for Grassfire — the signature gathering firm hired by Las Vegas Sands — said the Seminoles have lost their chance in Leon County.
“They made a strategic and tactical decision to go to Palm Beach instead of bringing this to you when you … denied their motion to dismiss,” Lombard told Judge Dempsey.
“They’ve got to live with the consequences of that strategic, tactical decision,” Lombard said.
William Shepherd, the attorney representing the Seminoles PAC, said he is prepared to bring witnesses to testify about fraud in the signature-gathering process if a court hearing is scheduled.
Las Vegas Sands’ PAC is “engaged in widescale election fraud throughout our state” and the signatures that have been collected should be declared invalid, Shepherd told Dempsey.
But if all signatures collected so far are invalidated, “you are going to invalidate the signatures of voters who understood what they were signing … and throw out their signatures because of something they did not do,” said Mark Herron, an attorney representing Mark Early, the supervisor of elections in Leon County.
“You will be affecting the rights of voters to put matters on the ballot,” Herron said.