A group of gambling promoters from the U.S. Virgin Islands has quietly revived its campaign to legalize slot machines in the nation's capital, circulating petitions over the Christmas holiday aimed at putting the issue before District voters in 2006.
Over six days beginning Dec. 23, the group, which has its headquarters in St. Croix and is led by gambling entrepreneur Shawn A. Scott, hired 75 circulators to hit the streets of Washington and ask registered voters to sign petitions in support of the slots initiative. The workers were paid as much as $20 per valid signature.
Last week, Scott and his associates delivered more than 6,000 signatures to D.C. election officials, asking that the new signatures be added to nearly 14,700 signatures collected and validated during a contentious petition drive last summer.
The submission astounded city officials, who thought they had finished with the gambling measure in August, when the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics ruled that slots backers failed to collect enough valid signatures to qualify for the 2004 ballot in a campaign marred by fraud and forgery. The election board must now decide whether District law permits slots backers to transfer the signatures collected in 2004 to an effort to qualify for the ballot in 2006.
The holiday petition drive also stunned Scott's local allies, who quickly distanced themselves from the effort. D.C. businessman Pedro Alfonso last week resigned as chairman of a political action committee formed to support the gambling measure, as did treasurer Vickey Wilcher and record-keeper Margaret Gentry. The resignations leave Johnny Clinton Hyatt, a Louisiana man, as the sole officer of the gambling campaign. Hyatt works for Rob Newell, one of Scott's associates.
In an interview, Alfonso said he became concerned and "perplexed" when Newell told him just before Christmas that the St. Croix group had decided to launch a new petition drive without consulting D.C. election officials.
"There were a lot of things going on without my full knowledge," Alfonso said. "I was not interested in getting into a contentious process that was not legally viable or proper."
Martin Gersten, a Connecticut lawyer who has represented Scott in several gambling ventures, said the latest petition drive is both legal and proper. But if the board doesn't accept the signatures, Gersten said, Scott is prepared to start the referendum process anew.
"We're going to vigorously pursue it," Gersten said.
If approved by voters, the measure would permit Scott to install 3,500 slot machines on a 14-acre site at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE.
The measure has been promoted by Alfonso and former D.C. Council member John Ray. But funding for the $1.2 million campaign has come exclusively from Newell and Scott. Newell, an Idaho man, has a long history of troubled business deals; Scott, a gambling promoter and financier, has failed to obtain gambling licenses in five states where regulators found instances of financial mismanagement, irregular accounting practices and hidden partnerships.
Scott first proposed the project in April. He later obtained an option to buy the New York Avenue property, Gersten said. But gambling opponents blocked his effort to put the matter before District voters, convincing elections officials that a July petition drive had been tainted by violations of local election laws.
In August, the election board ruled that slots backers had submitted 14,687 valid signatures, short of the 17,599 needed to qualify for the Nov. 2 ballot. The D.C. Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, and the issue seemed to fade away.
But then Scott asked Gersten to try to revive the initiative. Gersten examined District law and concluded that the petitions approved by the elections board July 1 had "a useful life of 180 days," a period that ended Dec. 28. In mid-December, Gersten advised Scott to take another shot at collecting the signatures.
On Dec. 22, Scott hired a local firm, Interactive Political Media Inc., to conduct a petition drive for about $40,000. The company's president, Larry Ward, said he used a database of activists created during recent political campaigns to quickly assemble a team of petition circulators.
The election board's general counsel, Kenneth J. McGhie, said it is true that the law gives petition circulators six months to gather signatures. But board regulations also say that "once an initiative has been rejected, you have to start the process anew," McGhie said. Board members, who met yesterday, expect to resolve the matter soon, he said.
Gambling opponents vowed yesterday to resume their fight against Scott and his allies.
"They think they can buy their way in the District of Columbia," said community activist Dorothy Brizill. "This time, they tried to do it under the radar by seeking signatures during the Christmas holidays when the D.C. government was shut down and few people were paying attention."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.