Inside One GOP Firm’s Secret Fight To Protect the Seminole Tribe’s Gambling Monopoly

Andy Blunt / Wikimedia
July 19, 2022

A prominent Republican consulting firm helmed by a U.S. senator's son was the hidden hand behind a major Florida ballot initiative that would have ended the Seminole Tribe's stranglehold on gaming in the Sunshine State—allowing them to box out gambling giants including Las Vegas Sands that were looking to gain a foothold in the state.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida has built an empire off its gaming enterprises and dropped tens of millions of dollars into an unprecedented opposition campaign centered around paying petition-gathering firms big money to stay out of the expansion effort, Politico reported in November. The money was funneled through a Florida consulting firm to a previously undisclosed collaborator, the Washington Free Beacon has learned: Husch Blackwell Strategies (HBS), a top Republican consulting firm run by Sen. Roy Blunt's (R., Mo.) son, Andy Blunt.

With Blunt's firm's help, the Indian tribe ran a scheme to kneecap its competitors, including Sands, FanDuel, and DraftKings, that included sabotage, harassment, and six-figure buyouts, sources familiar with the fight told the Free Beacon. Florida was not the first place Blunt's firm used this strategy: The firm also worked on behalf of George Soros and a Democratic dark-money group, the Free Beacon reported in May, to undermine a GOP-backed voter ID ballot initiative in Michigan. He did so, as in Florida, by paying signature gatherers not to work for his opponents

In Florida, likely due to the potential profits at stake for the Seminoles, Blunt unfolded the same scheme on steroids, and the sums of money changing hands dwarfed what was handed over in Michigan. The tribe's gaming empire, led by its well-known Hard Rock brand, rakes in billions of dollars a year thanks to its agreement with the Sunshine State, which grants the Seminoles the exclusive right to operate casino games like blackjack. The ballot initiative would have undermined that monopoly by allowing new casinos if they were located at least 130 miles away from the tribe's existing gaming properties.

Jack Abramoff, a former lobbyist for several Indian tribes who is awaiting sentencing on marijuana-related lobbying violations, could not be reached for comment.

The tribe's tactics in Florida could transform ballot initiative campaigns going forward. Deep-pocketed financiers will almost certainly replicate the successful strategy of paying canvassing firms to stay on the sidelines. As a result, Tallahassee-based political consultant Abigail MacIver said, ballot initiatives will become both more expensive and more difficult to run.

"Anybody with a decent-sized pocketbook on the opposite side could employ these same tactics. Once the tactics are done and they're known, this is going to be the new way people operate," MacIver told the Free Beacon

To undermine the gaming initiative, the tribe funneled more than $40 million through a political PAC, Standing Up for Florida. The direct recipient of the funds was Cornerstone Solutions, a Florida-based firm founded by political consultant Rick Asnani, Florida campaign finance disclosures show. The figure putting those funds to work on the ground, according to multiple operatives involved in the fight, was Meghan Cox, who runs the Blunt firm's canvassing subsidiary, HBS+. Cox was Asnani's go-to partner and "first point of contact" in the tribe's opposition effort, according to MacIver and other operatives who worked on the initiative.

Cox, those operatives said, targeted top canvassing firms who had signed on with Sands and offered them lucrative six- and seven-figure buyouts to stay on the sidelines. In return, the firms would either pull out of the gambling battle altogether or commit their resources to the tribe's opposition effort, a Republican consultant who received such a proposal told the Free Beacon. At least one firm, however, took money from the tribe to stay on Sands's payroll and underperform, sabotaging the company's campaign, according to the consultant, who spoke on background out of fear of retribution.

"I know of buyouts for $400,000 or $500,000. It was hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars," one of the operatives told the Free Beacon

MacIver, who worked with Sands on the gambling initiative, confirmed Cox's role in the scheme. She said Cox ran the effort with Mark Jacoby, an Orlando-based operative who in 2009 pleaded guilty to voter-registration fraud in California.

Due to HBS's reputation as a Republican firm, it attempted to hide its effort in opposition to Sands, a company founded by the late GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson that had been a longtime HBS client.

HBS, Cornerstone Solutions, and Jacoby did not return requests for comment.

Sands, which for decades owned and operated the famous Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, also pumped tens of millions of dollars into the gaming expansion battle. The company contributed more than $70 million to the political PAC that sponsored the petition, Florida Voters in Charge, and offered its own canvassers thousands of dollars in bonuses to keep them from switching sides. The strategy was largely unsuccessful, MacIver said, as the Seminoles would respond by raising their own bonuses, which allowed Sands's canvassers to pocket thousands of dollars without working.

This is not the first time Cox has worked against her firm's allies on a ballot initiative. In June 2021, Cox and Blunt partnered with a George Soros-linked dark money behemoth to kill voter ID expansion in Michigan. 

The Free Beacon was first to identify the operatives as the driving force of the effort. That effort also saw the Republican operatives pay petition gatherers tens of thousands of dollars not to work on the issue.