A coalition of religious and community groups yesterday asked a D.C. Superior Court judge to block a petition drive to put the legalization of slot machines on the November ballot, saying the D.C. election board improperly granted slots backers permission to pursue what amounts to special-interest legislation.
The lawsuit's filing effectively halts the referendum process, making it unlikely that proponents will be able to collect the signatures of 17,500 District voters and submit them to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics by July 6, the deadline for getting a question on the Nov. 2 ballot. City law bars the election board from permitting the group to circulate petitions until the legal challenge is resolved.
"The window gets smaller and smaller," election board general counsel Kenneth J. McGhie said when asked whether slots backers have time to get the question before voters this year. "It all depends on what kind of schedule the court gives us."
The first hearing in the case was set for Sept. 24. But McGhie said he would press the court to move up the hearing under a law that requires judges to expedite challenges to ballot initiatives.
Lawyer John Ray, who represents the slots initiative, said he will file papers today seeking to intervene in the lawsuit, which was filed against the election board. Ray said his clients also will press the court "to move consideration of this along."
"I think we've got some very good arguments," Ray said. He dismissed the lawsuit's claims as "without merit."
The lawsuit was filed by three D.C. residents who oppose the proposal to let voters decide whether to approve the installation of 3,500 slot machines at a site bounded by New York Avenue, Bladensburg Road and Montana Avenue NE. The plan, submitted by Ray on behalf of businessman Pedro Alfonso, calls for the owner of the site to be granted an exclusive, 10-year license to operate slots in the nation's capital, a venture that would generate an estimated $765 million a year.
Under the proposal, 25 percent of the proceeds would be given to District government to fund the city's budget. The rest, as much as $575 million a year, would be retained by investors.
The plaintiffs -- Methodist minister David Argo, Ward 5 advisory neighborhood commissioner Regina James and Dorothy Brizill, founder and executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group DCWatch -- said the proposal amounts to special-interest legislation because it would grant "a monopoly 10-year license, or contract, to a single company composed of unnamed and unrevealed investors."
So far, slots backers have identified two investors: Alfonso, who owns the telecommunications firm Dynamic Concepts Inc., and Rob Newell, an Idaho man who lives in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Newell has ties to gambling promoter Shawn A. Scott, who came up with the idea of bringing slots to the District.
Scott has invested in more than a dozen gambling ventures over the past decade but has been denied or failed to obtain gambling licenses in five states where regulators found evidence of financial mismanagement and hidden partnerships. Ray and Newell said Scott is no longer involved with the D.C. initiative, though he and Newell remain business associates.
"There's a big sleaze factor associated with casino gambling and slots," Brizill said at a news conference outside the D.C. courthouse. "D.C. residents who are being asked to approve this, they need to know where the money is coming from."
Brizill's lawsuit also complains about a complicated procedural maneuver that may violate city law: On June 2, the election board postponed consideration of the slots proposal so backers could publish revisions in the D.C. Register. Supporters accomplished that task by making copies at Kinko's and mailing them to register subscribers.
Under city law, only the secretary of the District may publish the register. The plaintiffs argue that the text of the initiative therefore was "never 'officially' published."
But McGhie said nothing in city law requires publication of an initiative's text. Only the short title and summary -- the words that will actually appear on the petition -- must be published, he said, adding that the requirement was met June 11.