Court Ruling Clears Way for Trial on Florida Slots

A Florida court ruling has set the stage for a trial on whether slots can continue at Gulfstream Park and other Broward County pari-mutuel facilities.

Citing jurisdictional reasons, the Florida Supreme Court in a Sept. 27 decision declined to rule on certain key issues in the ongoing legal battle: whether a voter-approved amendment can be later invalidated, and specifically in the case where fraud is alleged in a pre-election legal action.

Florida voters in 2004 narrowly approved an amendment that gave Broward County and Miami-Dade County residents the right to decide if they wanted slots at pari-mutuel facilities.

An attorney affiliated with the anti-slots group Floridians Against Expanded Gambling, which filed the original lawsuit five weeks before the 2004 election, said the ruling clears the way for a trial that could ultimately shut down slots parlors at Broward County pari-mutuel facilities.

“They ruled that the trial could go forward, and if we prevail at trial, then the slots initiative is invalid,” attorney John H. Pelzer said.

At the center of the dispute are charges that pro-slot groups committed fraud in obtaining sufficient petition signatures to include their initiative in the 2004 general election. Among other charges, the lawsuit claims contractors hired by pro-slots groups in some instances used fraudulent signatures in order to meet petition requirements.

An affiliated attorney to the pro-slots group, which claims an election cures any petition issues, denied any fraudulent activities were done by the advocacy group listed as a defendant, Floridians For A Level Playing Field, which includes Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course, among others.

“I am fully convinced that the evidence will ultimately show there is no fraud," said attorney Wilbur Brewton. "Would we have loved to have the Supreme Court issue a ruling that says our case law was right? Yes, that would have been nice. Now it’s just going to take more time and money."

A Leon County circuit judge in January 2005 ruled against the anti-slots groups, but the Florida First District Court of Appeals eventually reversed that judgment, remanding the lawsuit back to the court for trial. As part of its decision, the appeals court asked the Florida Supreme Court to rule on “questions of great importance.”

Pelzer said it would be hard to predict when the trial will be scheduled.

“We had attempted to have a trial even prior to the election back in 2004, and the trial judge decided that it would be a violation of the due process rights of the pro-gambling interests,” he said. “Based on that rationale, she would want to protect everyone’s due process rights and will allow full discovery, which means it could take some time.”

Development of slots parlors at Gulfstream, which first opened in mid-November 2006, was funded by $47.3 million in financing from a subsidiary of owner Magna Entertainment Corp.'s parent company, MI Developments, according to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Residents of Miami-Dade County, where Calder Race Course operates, will have another chance to vote on slots in January. Voters in the county earlier voted against such a referendum.

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