Seminoles Paying Off Petition Gatherers as Part of 2022 Florida Gaming Turf War

TALLAHASSEE — The Seminole Tribe of Florida is paying petition gathering firms to not work in Florida during the 2022 midterms as part of an effort to block rival proposed gaming constitutional amendments — a strategy that also includes running a separate informal signature gathering operation and hiring workers that interfere with other petition gatherers.

It’s part of a Tribe’s “blocking” campaign that’s designed to keep rival gaming companies from getting provisions on the 2022 midterm ballot. The massive effort, one of the largest ever seen in Florida politics, includes paying petition gathering firms more money than they would likely normally see in an election cycle in return for them signing exclusivity agreements, some of which POLITICO has obtained. It includes a wave of campaign-styled TV ads as well as an informal side petition effort organized by a convicted voter fraudster.

The Tribe is also separately paying workers to interfere with rival petition gatherers, according to interviews with petition gatherers involved in the 2022 efforts.

The massive effort is part of a turf war being waged over Florida’s multibillion-dollar gaming industry, which has been dominated by the Seminole Tribe of Florida and its world-renowned Hard Rock brand. But the Tribe, which completed a $1.5 billion overhaul of its signature Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood resort in 2019, is becoming an increasing subject of fierce competition from slot-room operators in Broward and Miami-Dade that have been shut out of gaming talks with the Legislature for years.

Taking center stage headed into 2022 is the Tribe’s fight with gaming giants FanDuel, DraftKings and Las Vegas Sands, which have poured nearly $60 million into support of two separate gaming measures they want to get on the 2022 ballot. If passed, the measures would give those companies significant footholds into the Florida gaming market.

The effort started shortly after lawmakers used a May special legislative session to approve a $2.5 billion gaming deal, known as a compact, negotiated between the Seminoles and Gov. Ron DeSantis. The compact gave the Tribe, among other things, exclusive sports gaming rights. But a federal judge last week tossed out the pact, though the Tribe is appealing the decision.

When asked about the blocking effort, including buying out petition gathering firms, a spokesperson for the Seminoles said the Tribe has “assembled the best team of political consultants in the country.”

“It is currently engaged to oppose multiple outside interests that have initially invested a combined $60 million in PAC money to hire more than a thousand people to fight the Tribe’s success,” said Seminole spokesperson Gary Bitner.

A CEO of a firm gathering signatures for the 2022 fight against the Seminoles, Dunton Consulting, told POLITICO that she has had 32 signature gatherers take buyouts from the Seminole-linked firms in the past two days alone, which is more than half her team. The CEO, Rasheida Smith, said the structure usually includes a sign-up bonus, then additional money 30 days later for a total haul that can be up to $7,000. She said the Tribe has also enticed people on her team with $250 bonuses if they can recruit petition gatherers who work for the Seminoles rival gaming petitions and get them to come to the Tribe’s side.

“Over the last 72 hours there has really been a big uptick, they are starting to use canvassers to co-opt other canvassers,” Smith said. “They are super aggressive. Have been following them, tracking them to their places of residence, which are hotels, standing outside. We literally had one smack a clipboard out of the canvasser's hands the other day.”

Bitner said the Tribe will fire any workers who engage in inappropriate behavior.

Smith’s company is working to get signatures for a proposed 2022 ballot proposal backed by Las Vegas Sands that would allow new casinos at existing card rooms if they are located more than 130 miles away from Seminole casinos, which could land new casinos in North Florida where there are no Tribe-owned facilities. A political committee associated with that effort has raised $28 million, nearly all of which has come from Las Vegas Sands.

The Seminole’s attempt to poach petition gathering firms is being run through Cornerstone Solutions, a West Palm Beach-based firm founded by Rick Asnani, who has long done contract consulting work for the firm. He is currently chairing two political committees associated with the Tribe’s blocking efforts including one called Standing Up For Florida that has paid his firm $5.5 million since founders set it up in September.

The agreements limit the type of work petitioning gathering firms can do in Florida through 2024.

“Cornerstone can retain and have available CONTRACTOR to help further CORNERSTONE’s business interests in Florida, including, but not limited to, consulting on any potential campaigns or ballot measures for the November 6, 2024 election that relate, in any way to gaming reform,” according to a contract reviewed by POLITICO that’s dated July 2.

The contract specifically notes the company is “in the business of collecting petition signatures.”

When reached on his cell phone, Asnani declined to comment about his work.

A second Tribe-opposed ballot measure supported by FanDuel and DraftKings would allow sports betting throughout the state, not just through the Seminoles. A political committee backed largely by those companies has paid more than $10 million to gather signatures to Advanced Micro Targeting, a firm that has seen the Tribe blocking efforts.

“I have never seen it this bad. I have seen blockers before, but not like this,” said Faten Alkhulifi, regional director at Advanced Micro Targeting. “It makes these canvassers fear for their safety. I’ve seen people about to sign, then they end up walking away, sometimes scared.”

Zachery Herrington, Advanced Micro Targeting’s state director, says he’s worried the Tribe’s efforts include hiring unprofessional or even “dangerous” staffers.

“We run background checks on everyone we hire and make sure they are people who are respectful,” he said. “My concern is they are hiring folks that could be dangerous or seedy. People who are quick to harass or intimidate.”

He said sometimes the aim is to make a petition gathering location seem overcrowded, or to make a scene that causes all gatherers to be forced to leave.

“They will harass us for a spot. They will do something like piss someone off at a DMV, or a courthouse, or a parking lot, then everyone gets kicked out,” Herrington said. “It’s designed to burn that turf for everyone.”

Bitner, the Seminole spokesperson, reiterated that they do not teach or condone aggressive tactics.

“Team members involved in the education campaign are trained not to engage in any opposition efforts and to only collect signatures,” he said. “Any incidents of inappropriate behavior are not tolerated and result in immediate termination.”

Along with paying off petition gatherers, the Seminole-funded political committee so far put $8 million behind a campaign-style TV ad blasting the ballot measures. The ad does not mention either the proposals specifically or the company’s bankrolling them, but makes clear its position on the issue.

“Say ‘no’ to these outsiders who are trying to control us and risk our future,” the ad’s narrator says. “Say ‘no’ to the gambling petitions.”

The aggressive effort has caught the eye of Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), who had previously grilled the Seminoles over rivals’ plans to expand. During a May special session called for lawmakers to approve an update to the Seminole compact, Brandes used a meeting of the Senate Committee on Appropriations to ask Seminole Gaming Chief Executive Jim Allen if, in the future, the Tribe would oppose ballot measures that could lead to new casinos in areas of the state that do not violate the compact, which banned new casinos within 100 miles of Tribe-owned facilities.

“Is that something the Tribe would fund against?” Brandes said during the May 17 meeting. “They are following the rules, they are putting it on the ballot, and are also 100 miles from tribal lands.”

Allen told Brandes that under the Tribe’s current board, it would not oppose ballot measures that could lead to new casinos more than 100 miles from its facilities.

“The answer would be no ... the Tribe has always been receptive to navigate the process,” Allen said in response to Brandes. “I certainly can’t speak to elected officials of the Tribe 10, 20 years form now, but certainly today that is not the case.”

Brandes told POLITICO in an interview Wednesday that he thinks some of the actions taken by the Tribe since to try and block the current proposed ballot measure are at odds with Allen’s comments.

“If the actions they are doing violate his word, what is his word worth?” Brandes said.

Bitner, however, said the situations are not the same when asked if the Tribe’s top executive lied about whether they would block future ballot measures that could expand gaming.

“There’s a big difference between agreeing to compact language focused on Florida-based developments and protecting the Tribe’s business interests from out-of-state gaming entities that seek to divert money from the Tribe and Floridians and ship it out of state,” he said.

Gaming has made the Seminole Tribe immensely wealthy, with its worldwide Hard Hock empire generating more than $34 billion a year in revenue. The roots of that empire are found in Hollywood, Fla., at a bingo hall opened by the tribe about 40 years ago. The facility now sits across the street from the towering new guitar-shaped hotel tower that dominates a corner of the Fort Lauderdale horizon for miles.

The Tribe earned its dominance in Florida through the gaming deal with the state known as a compact. The compact allowed the Seminoles to exclusively offer popular casino-style games, such as blackjack, at its six gaming facilities in Florida. And in exchange of the exclusivity, the Tribe agreed to share some of its gaming revenues with the state. Tribal leaders have said the exclusivity clause guarantees economic solvency for decades to come.

The Tribe has also used its immense wealth to change the state constitution. It contributed more than $24 million toward a successful 2018 ballot initiative requiring that voters approve any changes made to gambling laws by the Legislature.

As part of the effort, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has also been paying to circulate a separate petition that it claims supports the Seminole’s compact and new revenue for Florida. That effort, known as a plebiscite, is not tied to any specific measure being proposed for the 2022 ballot, but asks things like a signer’s name and address.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida says the plebiscite is about “education.” But supporters of the ballot measure argue it muddies the waters, making people think they have already signed a petition in support of one of the two ballot measures, when in reality they have signed a piece of paper not associated with any official campaign.

“That’s the thing, when we come and ask someone to sign a petition saying it will increase funding for local schools, we hear them tell our gatherers that they have already signed,” said Herrington, the Advanced Micro Targeting state director. “It’s totally confusing, as it’s designed to be.”

The plebiscite effort has been led, in part, by Mark Jacoby, an Orlando-based political consultant who has faced voter fraud charges tied to his past work on ballot measures.

In 2009, he pleaded guilty to registering a fake California address to fulfill that state’s requirement that signature gatherers be eligible to vote in the state. In 2004, Jacoby worked in Florida to get college students to flip their registration from Democrat to Republican, and in the process faced allegations from Florida election officials that 4,000 students were improperly registered as part of the drive.

The Tribe did not dispute Jacoby’s involvement, but said they did not hire him.

“Mr. Jacoby is a vendor to a vendor. Please reach out to him directly with any questions you may have,” Bitner said.

Jacoby did not return multiple requests seeking comment.

Arek Sarkissian contributed to this report.

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