Lawsuit a threat to casinos with slot machines

A nearly forgotten case that pits South Florida’s slot machine casinos against anti-gambling forces has resurfaced in a Tallahassee court after dragging through the appeals process for months.

The lawsuit challenges a 2004 statewide vote that gave Broward and Miami-Dade counties the right to open slot-machine casinos with local approval. The 1st District Court of Appeal on May 7 sent the case back to its original Tallahassee court for trial. A new judge, Circuit Judge William L. Gary, has been assigned to the case. No trial date has been set yet.

Filed by a coalition of gambling foes — including Floridians Against Expanded Gambling, the Humane Society of the United States and GREY2K, a group that opposes greyhound racing — the suit accused pro-slots forces of filing a petition rife with fraudulent signatures to get the issue on the ballot in 2004.

The initial judge on the case, Circuit Judge Nikki Ann Clark of Tallahassee, ruled after the 2004 election that the vote made any alleged improper signature gathering a moot point. But the appellate court overturned her ruling and said the case should proceed to trial. The Florida Supreme Court, where gambling proponents also appealed, said it had no jurisdiction. So the case lands back in Tallahassee for trial.

Attorney John Pelzer, representing the anti-gambling forces, said he had no comment on the case. Previously, he has said that „a very high percentage of people whose names appeared on petitions said they never signed the petition.“

If the case goes to trial, there could be major financial implications. During all the legal delays, gambling has made extensive gains in Florida. Three elections for slots approval have been held in South Florida — one in Broward and two in Miami-Dade. Three slot machine casinos are now open at racetracks in Broward. Three more in Miami-Dade were authorized by voters in January.

Gambling interests have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to build casinos, install thousands of slot machines and win customers. If the pro-slots side, led by Floridians for a Level Playing Field, lost the case, that could mean that all the slots palaces would have to shut down.

„Our slots have been running for more than a year,“ said Dan Adkins, a vice president at Mardi Gras Racetrack and Gaming Center, with 1,430 slot machines, poker and a greyhound track.

He said the tracks are waiting to see what the judge will do.

„We haven’t gotten any further direction from the court,“ he said. „But I don’t have any worries whatsoever about the campaign we ran.“

In addition to Mardi Gras, in Hallandale Beach, which opened in December 2006, Broward also has slots at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach — which opened in November 2006 — and The Isle Casino in Pompano Beach, which opened in April 2007.

Miami-Dade voters, who rejected slots in 2005, voted on the issue again this year and approved them at Miami Jai-Alai, Flagler Dog Track and Calder Race Course.

The case would not affect the Seminole Tribe’s seven Florida casinos, which include the Hard Rock Casino near Hollywood, nor the Miccosukee Tribe’s casino in western Miami-Dade.

Adkins said there was talk of a possible settlement between the sides, though nothing has come of it so far.

„There have been discussions, off and on,“ he said. „Nothing concrete.“