Officials with the D.C. elections board said yesterday that initiative campaigns must use District residents both to circulate petitions and witness signatures, a legal interpretation that conflicts with the explanation given by organizers of the petition drive for slot machines to justify their heavy use of out-of-town workers.
About 100 paid workers from outside the city -- some brought in from as far away as California, Florida and Michigan -- helped collect the more than 50,000 signatures submitted to the board this week, according to Angelo Paparella, president of the California company hired to run the petition effort.
D.C. law states that a petition "circulator" must be a District resident. Paparella said the arrangement used in the slots effort is legal because the out-of-town workers were teamed with D.C. residents who witnessed the signatures and who signed the circulator's affidavit on the back of the petitions.
"The circulator is the person who signs the petition, under penalty of perjury, saying that he or she witnessed all the signatures," Paparella said.
But Kenneth J. McGhie, general counsel for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, said that the petition circulator is the person who handles the form and observes all the signatures being placed on the sheet. "They [circulators] are supposed to be doing both," McGhie said. "There is only one circulator of a petition sheet."
The affidavit that the circulator must sign states that "I have circulated the attached petition" and that "I was in the presence of each person who signed the attached petition."
McGhie said that by signing the affidavit, "They are saying, 'I am the circulator and I witnessed all the signatures.' There can be a dozen people standing next to the circulator witnessing the signatures, but that does not make them the circulator."
Anyone making false statements or misrepresentations could be subject to criminal prosecution and imprisoned for as long as a year and fined as much as $10,000.
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 a 14-acre site at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE. The two investors in the project so far are D.C. businessman Pedro Alfonso and Rob Newell, a financier from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Paparella and Alfonso referred further questions about the legality of the campaign's deployment of workers to the initiative's general counsel, former D.C. Council member John Ray. He did not return two calls seeking comment.
Backers of the gaming project needed to collect the signatures of 17,599 registered D.C. voters to get the proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot. They have said they expect that more than 20,000 of the signatures they gathered during the five-day petition drive will be ruled valid by the elections board.
A coalition of civic and religious activists, however, is preparing a broad challenge to the validity of the petitions. Opponents said they plan to argue before the board that many petition circulators were not D.C. residents, as required by law, and that campaign workers made false statements about the proposed project to get people to sign the forms.
Board officials said that the panel's staff yesterday began reviewing the names collected on the petitions and those of the workers who signed the forms. Board spokesman Bill O'Field said the panel will check the names and addresses on the petitions to make sure they correspond with the addresses on the individuals' voter registration. The board will then take a random sample of 800 names -- 100 per ward -- to see whether the signatures match up with those on voter registration cards.
Media reports about the role played by out-of-town workers would not prompt a review of the petition process; the board would need to receive a formal complaint on the issue, McGhie said.
"When a challenge is brought, the burden of proof is on the challenger," he said.
Challenges can be filed as of tomorrow and must be submitted by July 19, board officials said. The panel has 15 days to resolve a challenge, starting from the date it is filed.
Dorothy Brizill, a leader of the anti-slots coalition, said it plans to file paperwork with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance in the next day or two to establish itself as a formal committee. "We are doing this so we can raise and spend money to review petitions," Brizill said. "This also gives us observer status, meaning you can stand over the shoulder of the board personnel reviewing the petitions."
She said the coalition's complaint will focus in part on the allegation that many of those who signed the circulator's affidavit on the forms did not actually circulate the petitions. She said the coalition also will show that there were cases in which the affidavit signer did not witness all the signatures on the sheet.
Brizill said that yesterday morning, she found more than a dozen blank petitions that had been left as trash outside a room at the Red Roof Inn in Chinatown, a hotel used by organizers as a base of operation. On each form, someone already had signed the circulator's affidavit, she said. One of those signatures matches the name of a homeless man.
More than 50 people showed up at the hotel yesterday afternoon, hoping to get paid for their work collecting signatures. Several of them later complained that they had not been paid as much as promised, if at all.
Larry Fisher, 54, of the District said he was promised $3 per signature. But he said he has been paid only $33 so far, with organizers explaining that only 11 of the 70 signatures he collected last weekend were valid.
Chad Towe, a consultant for Stars and Stripes USA, one of the companies hired to help conduct the petition drive, blamed the pay delays in part on bank closings during the Independence Day weekend. He said that the company expected to have everyone paid by this afternoon and that he would stay in town until that happened.
Staff writer Dakarai Aarons and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.