D.C. Slots Goal Met, Backers Say
Petitions Submitted For Nov. 2 Ballot
By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2004; Page A01
Supporters of a plan to bring slot machines to the nation's capital ended their five-day petition drive yesterday claiming that they had collected more than 50,000 signatures and had met the legal requirements to get the issue on the November ballot.
As organizers submitted the forms to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics just before a 5 p.m. deadline, the president of the California company hired to run the petition effort said he was confident that at least 17,599 of the signatures -- the minimum needed to put the gambling proposal before voters Nov. 2 -- were from registered D.C. voters.
The elections board has 30 days to review the 3,869 petition sheets and the signatures on them to determine how many are valid. The petition push, which did not begin until Thursday evening, has been dogged by opponents' allegations that many of the signatures were gathered illegally. Anti-slots activists said they plan to argue before the board that many petition circulators were not D.C. residents, as required by law, and that campaign workers made false statements about the initiative to get people to sign the forms.
But Angelo Paparella, president of Progressive Campaigns Inc., based in Santa Monica, Calif., said he expected that more than 20,000 of the signatures collected would be ruled valid. The rest are people who are not registered to vote in the city or whose addresses do not match D.C. voter rolls, he said.
"The majority of these signatures on these petitions will be upheld by the elections board, so I fully anticipate that voters will have a chance to be heard on this issue come November," he said. Paparella said the initiative had met another legal requirement by getting signatures from at least 5 percent of registered voters in six of the city's eight wards.
The initiative would ask voters to approve a plan to install as many as 3,500 video lottery terminals in an entertainment complex to be built on a 14-acre site at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE. The two investors in the project so far are D.C. businessman Pedro Alfonso and Rob Newell, a financier from the U.S. Virgin Islands. The initiative's general counsel is former D.C. Council member John Ray. Alfonso and Ray did not return calls yesterday.
Paparella said that about 200 paid workers took part in the signature-gathering, and that half of them were not D.C. residents, coming from states that included California, Utah, Washington, Florida and Michigan. That explanation appears to conflict with previous statements from Ray, who said last week that Progressive Campaigns had brought in managers from out of town, "but they are not supposed to be circulating any petitions."
Paparella said that the petition circulators earned about $3 per signature but that some workers received bonuses for performing well, such as getting 100 signatures or more a day with a validation rate of at least 50 percent.
"Workers were brought in from out of town because of the short time frame," Paparella said. He contended that District law allows the use of workers from elsewhere in the country as long as a D.C. resident witnesses all the signatures being placed on each petition form.
But opponents of the gaming project -- as well as several of the out-of-town petition workers -- said that numerous signatures were not witnessed by a D.C. resident. In some cases, D.C. residents brought along as witnesses were seen several blocks away from the out-of-town circulators or were trying to monitor several of them at once, according to interviews.
A security guard at a Safeway on Capitol Hill said in an interview yesterday that several workers paid him $55 Saturday night after he agreed to sign the affidavit on their petitions stating that he had witnessed the signatures on those forms.
"At the time, I was busy and I didn't see every signature. But I did notice them standing out there," said the guard, speaking on the condition that his name not be used. "One of them said, 'You see me standing out there getting signatures. I didn't write any myself.' "
The guard added that after showing the workers two forms of identification and signing the affidavit, he was given $20 in cash and a $35 check from a company named Initiatives Plus that showed a Seattle address.
Paparella said that Initiatives Plus was one of several national companies hired to help conduct the petition drive. "There are a lot of different layers here," Paparella said.
A petition circulator from Northern Virginia said in an interview that after he and a neighbor told an organizer Friday evening that they had collected signatures without a D.C. resident as a witness, the organizer told them to forge the signature of the witness who had accompanied them the night before.
His neighbor then did so, said the Northern Virginia man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"If anyone signed the petition saying they witnessed the signatures when they didn't, or if someone told them to break the law, they should be prosecuted," Paparella said.
Regina James, one of the plaintiffs who was involved in an unsuccessful suit to block the petition drive, said she filed a complaint yesterday with the elections board, alleging that the petition workers had violated the city's laws and "made a mockery of the process."
Slots opponents also have alleged that petition circulators used questionable tactics and arguments to persuade people to sign.
Charles Callis, 58, said that after he dropped off his wife yesterday morning at the Metro station on Rhode Island Avenue NE, a petition worker told her she could win a car if she signed the form because it was the final stretch of the drive.
Later on, Callis said, the petition worker told him that the money from the slots would go to rebuilding the District's school system. "I think they were deliberately trying to do the bait-and-switch and divert attention away from the fact that this is gambling," Callis said.
Some homeless people in the District were recruited to work in the petition drive. One of them, 41-year-old David Williams, who said he has been living at a District shelter for about six months, complained yesterday that he had been taken advantage of and had been paid only $35, even though he had collected about 80 signatures.
"I need money, and to be cheated like this is very unfair," he said.
Antoine Pitts, 28, a graphic designer from Detroit, said he learned about the signature drive from a company he identified as Petition Management. He said he had been paid $400 and was expecting an additional $2,600.
"A witness saw all my signatures," Pitts said, adding that the company paid for his airfare and hotel stay. "It was a good free vacation."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company