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To Meet Deadline, Elections Board Cut Out Breaks -- Even for Food

By Serge F. Kovaleski
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page C05

The D.C. elections board hearings that probed fraud and other irregularities in an initiative to legalize slot machines in the District involved an unprecedented 56,400 petition signatures submitted to the panel, 37 witnesses and 51 submissions of evidence.

While we are talking numbers, let's add these to the mix: zero meal breaks, more than a dozen lunches and dinners missed, and few bathroom breaks throughout the nine days of proceedings that were tightly run -- to say the least -- by board Chairman Wilma A. Lewis.

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Some witnesses faced questioning for six hours or more. Others had to wait even longer in the bland second-floor hearing room at One Judiciary Square before being called.

Lewis was so determined to make sure the board did not run up against Tuesday's deadline for resolving opponents' challenges -- or Thursday's deadline for determining whether the initiative had enough valid signatures to get on the November ballot -- that most hearings ran late into the night, and there were even back-to-back sessions on a Saturday and Sunday.

"After a while, it became cruel and inhumane treatment," quipped anti-slots activist Dorothy Brizill, who was involved in one of the two petition challenges. "We started early in the morning; we didn't have lunch; we didn't have dinner breaks; and there were barely any bathroom breaks. You just had to run to the bathroom."

Brizill added that because she and her husband, Gary Imhoff, relied on Metro to get home, it was sometimes a scramble to make the last train. "We had to get out of there by 11:30. But I can remember two nights in particular when we mentioned it to her, and she just kept the hearing rolling and we literally started packing up our boxes and files and she got the message," Brizill said.

Said Regina James, another slots opponent: "Welcome to the world of Wilma Lewis. When you step into her world, be prepared to sit and go straight through because she is serious about meeting statutory deadlines."

On Thursday, the elections board ruled that the petition drive failed to collect enough valid signatures to qualify for the Nov. 2 ballot. Though the drive produced more than 56,000 signatures -- three times the number needed -- the board determined that only 21,664 came from registered D.C. voters. From that pool, 6,977 were tossed out after the board found evidence of fraud, forgery and other "systematic" violations of local election laws. That left slots proponents with 14,687 valid signatures, well short of the 17,599 required.

Lewis, a former federal prosecutor, had the hearings moving at such a clip that the coalition of challengers finally set up a food table along a side wall -- grapes and other fruit, ham and other sandwich meats, bread, cheese, crackers, chips and cookies.

Bill O'Field, a spokesman for the panel, said, "We actually brought in a table for the proponents, as well, but they never used it."

The opponents' smorgasbord lasted only a few days before they opted to start dispatching a member of their team for food.

As for the three-member board, "they had deli sandwiches and fruit brought in and whenever there was a break they would eat something," O'Field said. "Then, of course, they had their bottled water."

By comparison, he noted, the July 2002 hearings on the petition scandal involving the campaign of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) lasted three days.

"In terms of the workload, the board has never had anything like this and never had to do it in such a short period of time," O'Field said of the slots case. "We were trying to get the people's work done."

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