Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska Sues Polling Company Over Casino Petition Failure

Posted on: January 16, 2017, 06:45h. 

Last updated on: January 16, 2017, 06:46h.

Ho-Chunk Inc, the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, has launched a $1 million lawsuit against a firm it alleges botched its campaign to get casino gaming legalized in Nebraska.

Scott Lautenbaugh’s Northstar Sued by Ho-Chunk over Nebraska Casino Campaign
Former Nebraska Senator and attorney for Northstar, Scott Lautenbaugh, says his company will fight the Ho-Chunk lawsuit and he expects to be vindicated. (Image: Nebraska Radio Network)

Last year, Ho-Chunk, along with a group of stakeholders in Nebraska’s embattled racing industry, launched a campaign called “Keep the Money in Nebraska.” It’s aim: to gather enough signatures to force a referendum on casino gaming in the November ballot.

As the name suggests, the group had had quite enough of seeing hard-earned Nebraskan dollars flow east to the casinos of Iowa. And, meanwhile, Ho-Chunk hoped a favourable outcome would eventually permit it to renovate its Atokad racetrack in South Sioux City into a casino complex.

The group needed the signatures of ten percent of the state’s registered voters to take the issue to ballot, or around 113,900 people. To this end, it enlisted the services of Omaha-based Northstar Campaign Systems.

Freakish Rejection Rate

Initial research undertaken by Northstar was encouraging; a survey found that 57 percent of likely voters “would either vote for, or lean towards voting for, expanded gambling.”

All NorthStar had to do was to turn that data into signatures.

By early July, it looked like Northstar had batted the figures out of the ballpark. Keep the Money in Nebraska delivered its petitions to the legislature in Lincoln in a convoy of hired trucks; a neat visual stunt to emphasize its overwhelming level of support.

But all was not as it seemed. A freakishly high number of signatures, some 35 percent, were rejected as invalid, largely because they were either duplicates or the signatories were not registered to vote.

No Guarantees

The $1.29 million Ho-Chunk had paid Northstar had all been for nothing, and, meanwhile, to add insult to injury, some months later, dozens of copies of signed petitions were found in a dumpster in downtown Omaha.

Now Ho-Chunk wants to claw some of those fees back.   

“But for [Northstar’s] false overstatements to [Ho-Chunk] of the number of signatures gathered and the validation rate of said signatures, [Ho-Chunk] would have terminated the service agreement and would not have continued to make … payments to Northstar,” Ho-Chunk attorney Conly Schulte wrote in the lawsuit.

But Scott Lautenbaugh, a former Nebraska state senator and now spokesperson and attorney for Northstar, said that his company was respected and had worked successfully on high-profile campaigns in the past. Furthermore, he said, Ho-Chunk was never offered any guarantees of success.

“How could anyone [guarantee a result]?” he asked the Omaha World-Herald. “If you could say for certain, you’d be able to predict the future, for God’s sakes.

“Ask Hillary Clinton about that,” he added.