Foes of Amendment 4 sued, claiming thousands of signatures submitted to qualify it were phony. But a judge rejects an early trial.
By JONI JAMES
Published October 12, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - A bid to strike a progambling initiative from the Nov. 2 ballot failed Monday when a judge refused to immediately consider allegations that the names of dead voters were used to qualify the measure.
Leon Circuit Judge Nikki Clark set a Jan. 31 trial date for the fraud charges, frustrating antigambling advocates but pleasing the seven South Florida parimutuels that stand to benefit from Amendment 4.
The proposed constitutional amendment would allow slot machines at existing dog and horse tracks and jai alai frontons in Miami-Dade and Broward counties if local voters agree to it in referendums. If the Legislature decided to tax the machines, the revenue would be dedicated statewide to public schools.
Clark, who gained national attention during the 2000 Florida recount, worried that a "rush to judgment" would deny adequate time for a defense.
The lawsuit, filed Sept. 28 by the Humane Society of the United States and antigambling advocates, contends that thousands of fraudulent signatures were among the 488,722 required to get the measure on the ballot. In Broward alone, the plaintiffs contend they found 33 petitions with forged signatures of dead voters.
The plaintiffs also argue that county and state elections officials did not adequately review the petitions before accepting them.
ARNO Consulting, the California firm hired by Amendment 4 supporters to collect signatures, has said it is not responsible for the alleged fraud. ARNO is one of the defendants in the lawsuit, along with Secretary of State Glenda Hood and the county elections supervisors.
The judge's decision Monday quickly morphed into fodder for both sides of the Amendment 4 campaign, which recent polls indicate is becoming increasingly competitive.
Though Florida voters have rejected casino-style gambling three times since 1978, a Mason-Dixon poll conducted for several Florida newspapers last week showed that 44 percent of voters supported Amendment 4 and 33 percent were opposed, with 22 percent undecided.
The campaign manager for Floridians for a Level Playing Field, the parimutuel-backed group, declared victory Monday. "This was a trumped-up charge and the judge didn't buy it," said Earl Bender. "They are trying to take voters' eyes off the ball."
But opponents pledged to pursue the matter regardless of the outcome of the election. One of them, No Casinos, unveiled its first TV ad. The ad accuses the gambling industry of "a campaign of utter deceit" in trying to sell the expanded gambling as a revenue stream for schools. It notes that the state's sheriffs' and police chiefs' organizations oppose the measure, saying it will increase crime.