A supplement to the D.C. Register, the District government's official organ for providing public notice of meetings and proposed regulations, was printed at a Kinko's last week and mailed to the register's 405 subscribers by backers of a plan to bring slot machine gambling to the nation's capital.
Secretary of the District Sherryl Hobbs Newman, whose office is responsible for the register, said yesterday that she was shocked when she learned of the incident. She said it was a "breach in procedure" that might violate city law and undermine the credibility of the legal bulletin.
Meanwhile, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics was scrambling to determine whether the ersatz supplement counts as official notice for a Wednesday hearing on the slots initiative, which backers hope to place before District voters on the Nov. 2 ballot.
"How embarrassing. It's just awful," said Newman's spokeswoman, Regina Williams. "We would never have allowed this to be published had we known there was an outside entity pushing it."
The story of the supplemental D.C. Register, first reported by the online magazine DCWatch, began Wednesday, when businessman Pedro Alfonso and his attorney, former council member John Ray, appeared before the election board seeking approval of a ballot initiative. Alfonso and Ray want to ask D.C. voters to authorize an entertainment complex with 3,500 slot machines on New York Avenue NE. Because Ray was asking the board to consider a revised version of the initiative, the board postponed a decision on whether the matter was appropriate for the ballot to allow time for the new version to be published in the register.
The register is published Fridays. Normally, submissions must be received more than a week in advance. But, Ray said, because time is short -- initiative backers must collect 17,500 signatures of D.C. voters by July 6 to qualify for the ballot -- Ray's assistant, Margaret Gentry, asked Newman's office to publish the item last Friday.
Both sides generally agree on what happened next: After receiving the text of the initiative from the election board, the register's editor prepared it for publication but told Gentry that the office had neither the time nor the staff to publish a supplement.
So Gentry offered to make copies and spent about $2,000 at a nearby Kinko's to have the 13-page supplement printed and bound. Gentry then returned to Newman's office with $340 worth of first-class postage to ship the supplement to the register's subscribers.
According to the D.C. Code, only the D.C. secretary's office has authority to print the register. Newman said her staff allowed Gentry to make copies of the supplement because they thought she was an election board employee. "She came in and she portrayed the situation and herself such that [the editor] believed this was coming from" the election board, Newman said. She said it was "the first time an outside entity has tried to come in and manipulate the system."
But Ray said that Gentry had talked about the need for speed with Newman's staff for three weeks and that staff members were well aware of whom Gentry represented.
"Margaret made it clear to them that she was with the initiative, including the specific initiative," Ray said. "We didn't put a gun to their head and say, 'Stick 'em up, give us this thing.' "