Organizers of a petition drive to legalize slot machines in the District said yesterday that they would have no trouble collecting the required number of signatures by today's deadline, which would put the issue on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Opponents of the slots initiative, however, said they had strong evidence -- captured on video camera and microcassette recorder -- that many of the signatures were gathered illegally. They said they will argue at a D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics hearing tomorrow that many of the petition circulators were not D.C. residents, as required by law, and that campaign workers made false statements about the initiative in an effort to get people to sign.
Last week, several workers collecting signatures told a reporter that they were from out of town. That pattern continued yesterday, with several petition circulators acknowledging in interviews that they were not District residents. Under D.C. law, all petition signatures must be witnessed by a District resident.
The initiative would ask voters to approve a plan to install as many as 3,500 video lottery terminals in an entertainment complex to be built on 14 acres at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE. Organizers were not authorized to begin circulating the petitions until Thursday afternoon, and they must gather signatures from 17,599 registered D.C. voters by the close of business today to get the issue on the November ballot. The elections board will have 30 days to review the petitions and determine whether they meet the requirements of the law.
As of Sunday night, the campaign had collected signatures from 16,000 registered D.C. voters with valid addresses, said Angelo Paparella, president of Progressive Campaigns Inc., the California company hired to run the petition drive. He said yesterday afternoon that with more than 200 circulators canvassing District streets and parking lots, the requirement for the additional 1,599 signatures would be met by nightfall.
Paparella said that organizers had met another legal requirement: obtaining signatures from at least 5 percent of registered voters in five of the city's eight wards. He said that the campaign had reached that threshold in Wards 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, and was close to it in Wards 1 and 2. He said that slots proponents wrote off Ward 3 because its affluent residents were considered the least likely to sign the petition.
"We like our chances," Paparella said. "By the end of the day, we will have qualified six different wards and we will have exceeded the 17,599 signatures required."
Workers had collected a total of about 32,000 signatures by Sunday night, he said, but about half of the names or addresses did not match voter rolls. He said an additional 2,000 signatures were rejected by his staff because they were on sheets signed by circulators who could not prove that they were D.C. residents.
But Dorothy Brizill, a slots opponent who heads the nonprofit citizen group DCWatch, said her group knows of many other sheets on which the person listed as the circulator -- although a D.C. resident -- did not actually witness all the signatures on the petition, which is a violation of the law.
"We have story after story after story like that," she said.
She also said that many petition circulators presented a false picture of the slots initiative by hawking it as a measure that would help create jobs, generate revenue for schools and start a literacy trust fund.
Brizill said she and a couple of dozen volunteers carried video and tape recorders as they watched campaign workers over the past several days. "We had to get evidence the Board of Elections couldn't refute," she said.
Paparella said that as long as petition workers mention that the initiative involves slot machines, they are free to talk about how the government's share of the revenue might be used. On the residency issue, he said that D.C. residents who circulate the forms have been instructed to make sure they witness all the signatures and that they must swear that they did so. Lying about it could bring a $10,000 fine or a year in jail.
"If anyone is not following the letter of the law, then they should be prosecuted," Paparella said.
Brizill said some of the D.C. residents who are fraudulently listed as petition circulators were recruited at District homeless shelters. Paparella acknowledged that it was possible that some of the circulators were homeless people, saying he was not sure.
Outside the Giant and Home Depot stores on Brentwood Road NE yesterday, three workers who were collecting signatures told a reporter that they were not District residents but were working with "partners" who were from the city. The D.C. residents on their team were standing some distance away, however, and were not watching as people signed the petitions.
"Nobody told me I couldn't collect them without a D.C. witness right here," said one worker, who said he was from California but declined to give his name.
Sandra Warren, a Ward 5 resident and real estate agent who declined to sign as she entered the Giant, said she would support a slots venture if it helped the District. But she said she was irked by the circulators' shifting and vague descriptions of the proposal.
"They're coming up with a lot of different stories," Warren said. "One person says we're going to create jobs. Well, who are you talking about jobs for?"
At 1 p.m., D.C. police officers ordered the circulators to leave the Giant and Home Depot parking lot, saying that several customers had complained of "aggressive" solicitation.