The five weeks following the launch of the Seminole Tribe’s sports betting app have seen a federal judge throw out their Gaming Compact with Florida, a lawsuit from Las Vegas Sands accusing the Tribe of “tortious interference with business relationships,” and Sen. Jeff Brandes calling for an investigation into reports of petition blocking and voter intimidation.
On Friday, the State Senator from St. Petersburg issued a press release calling for an investigation into allegations that the Seminole Tribe and their vendors are using paid petition blockers to bully, intimidate and harass Florida voters.
Brandes told the Catalyst he found the reports “shocking.”
“I think it’s unprofessional at best and unconscionable at worst,” said Brandes. “They can advertise all they want, but when you start harassing the petitioners who are simply trying to exercise their constitutional right to petition to change the constitution – that is completely out of balance.”
Brandes said the Tribe’s tactics prevent voters from making a clear choice. He said voters have a right to be educated and informed when making decisions concerning potential constitutional amendments and without the fear of harassment – as should those petitioning.
“Especially by someone who is potentially paid to harass them,” added Brandes.
As for the legality of the alleged tactics, Brandes said everyone is entitled to free speech, as long as it is limited to speech.
“But imagine somebody paid to track and follow you and harass the people you’re talking to,” he said.
Brandes’ call for state attorneys to investigate the Tribe’s practices follows a Politico story detailing allegations of paying petition gathering firms not to work in Florida during the 2022 midterm elections. The report states the alleged blocking campaign includes hiring workers to interfere with other petition gatherers, allegations also included in the Las Vegas Sands lawsuit.
In addition to those within the state petitioning to reign in the Tribe’s gaming expansion and monopoly over sports betting, the Tribe is also sparring with national gaming giants FanDuel, DraftKings and the Sands. All three would like a seat at Florida’s gaming table, and the Sands is also accusing the Seminole Tribe of paying off its petition gatherers.
Brandes said he would not be surprised to see state entities joining in the Sands lawsuit.
While reports of harassment and intimidation are clearly a bridge too far for the senator, Brandes has opposed the 2021 Gaming Compact from the beginning. He was the lone Republican to vote against the compact in May, which allowed for online sports betting operations and expanding table games to roulette and craps. Brandes said that as a Republican, he believes in free and open markets, and the compact with the state is the antithesis of that belief.
“It (the gaming Compact) essentially granted the tribe a monopoly in the state for the next 30 years,” said Brandes.
On Nov. 22, U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich wrote an opinion agreeing with Brandes while declaring the compact invalid.
“Because the State has not entered a similar agreement with any other entity, the Compact grants the Tribe a monopoly over both all online betting and all wagers on major sporting events,” wrote Friedrich.
The compact allows betting by patrons in the state who are not on Indian Lands, which the judge said violates the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Friedrich wrote the remedy is to reinstate the Tribe’s previous 2010 Gaming Compact with the state.
On Friday, the same day as Brandes’ call for a state investigation, an appeals court denied the Tribe’s emergency motion for a stay pending appeal regarding its sports betting operation. Brandes applauded the court’s decision.
“Ultimately, Floridians benefit from a free and open market,” reiterated Brandes. “The court recognized that the legislature overstepped its bounds and the compact violated federal law.”
In a statement released Saturday, the Seminole Tribe thanked patrons for participating in their “early access launch” and announced they are temporarily suspending its sportsbook operations. All active bets for events following the denied appeal will be refunded, and the app will remain active for withdrawals.
The Tribe also said it looks forward to working with the state and the U.S. Department of Justice to “aggressively defend the validity of the 2021 compact before the Appeals Court.”
Brandes said that his colleagues voted for the compact not because it was the best deal but because it was the easy deal.
“And frankly, they were told to do it,” stated Brandes. “The leadership of the House and Senate signed off on it, and they expected them to support it.”
While their sports betting app is no longer taking new bets, Brandes expects the Tribe to fight the rulings to the Supreme Court if necessary. He explained that billions of dollars are on the line, along with having a monopoly over the state’s 22 million residents and 130 million annual tourists.
“You have a gigantic moat around the State of Florida for an entire emerging industry for the next three decades,” said Brandes of what the Seminole Tribe stands to lose.
Brandes said he would have voted for the compact if it was limited to expanding table games and allowed for an open market on sports betting, but creating a 30-year monopoly was “too far.”
Brandes also noted that he had his own bill on sports betting last year and has no qualms with the practice as long the industry is open to all qualified applicants.
“There’s no reason that a qualified applicant should be denied access to the Florida marketplace,” said Brandes. “Competition is always good.”