D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday urged gambling promoters to abandon their hurried drive to put slot machines on the District ballot in November, saying they are "undermining their own effort by raising more questions than they're answering."
In an interview, Williams (D) said gambling advocates -- led by businessman Pedro Alfonso and former D.C. Council member John Ray -- are "rushing this thing." He encouraged Ray and Alfonso to slow down and instead consider putting the matter before voters during citywide elections in 2006.
"This is a major decision for any community to make," Williams said. "It ought to be done in the right way."
Ray, who serves as general counsel for the D.C. Video Lottery Terminal Initiative of 2004, said he respects "the mayor's views on this." But he said the drive to qualify for the Nov. 2 ballot will proceed and blamed the "perception of the rush-rush" on a July 6 deadline to collect the signatures of 17,500 District voters.
Once that deadline has passed, "we'll have a solid four to five months to make our case and inform the public," Ray said. "When the voters have a chance to see what this facility is all about, they'll be for it."
Since April, Ray and Alfonso have been pressing a gambling proposal before the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. The plan calls for D.C. voters to authorize the installation of 3,500 slot machines in Northeast Washington on a 14-acre parcel at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road.
The initiative would grant owners of the property an exclusive 10-year license to operate slots in the District. Ray and Alfonso propose building a $510 million entertainment complex on the site. One-quarter of the slots revenue -- an estimated $765 million a year -- would be given to D.C. government to fund city services.
Ray and Alfonso have described their plan as a homegrown effort to bring economic development to a forgotten neighborhood. But in recent days, Ray has acknowledged that a financier from the U.S. Virgin Islands is paying for the campaign, which is expected to cost nearly $500,000. That price tag includes payments for legal and consulting fees to Ray, Alfonso and other key figures.
The financier, Rob Newell, is a business associate of gambling promoter Shawn Scott, who in April first pitched the idea to Ray of bringing slots to the nation's capital. Scott has been denied or failed to obtain gambling licenses in five states where regulators found evidence of financial mismanagement, irregular accounting practices and hidden partnerships.
Ray said that Scott no longer has a role in the campaign. But Ray said he does not know whether Scott has a continuing financial interest in its outcome.
Williams, who opposes gambling, has taken no position on the slots proposal. In the past, he has said that he promised Alfonso he would remain neutral. Yesterday, Williams said slot machine gambling is an issue that's "important for the citizens themselves to decide, as they have in other states."
A coalition of religious and community groups has filed suit to block the proposal. At a hearing yesterday, D.C. Superior Court Judge James E. Boasberg permitted gambling promoters to intervene in the case. But Boasberg denied their request to be allowed to begin collecting signatures while he decides whether the suit has merit.
Boasberg scheduled another hearing for Monday, when the plaintiffs -- Regina James of the Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commission, Methodist minister David Argo and DCWatch Executive Director Dorothy Brizill -- are to make their case against the gambling initiative.
Brizill, representing the plaintiffs in lieu of an attorney, said she will argue that gambling is an inappropriate matter for the ballot and that promoters have been "accorded unusual benefits by the District government."
Ray said he was pleased with Boasberg's decision to schedule another hearing so quickly. But he said slots supporters need the judge to act fast, either by dismissing the suit or by permitting the petition drive to go forward.
"If things go our way on Monday, then I think we got a shot," Ray said. "But if they don't, then I think we've got to think about 2006."