A team of community activists urged the D.C. elections board yesterday to reject a bid to put the legalization of slot machines on the Nov. 2 ballot, saying a petition drive in support of the gambling initiative is hopelessly tainted by violations of local election laws.
In a challenge filed with elections board Chairman Wilma A. Lewis, anti-slots activists accused drive organizers of employing an army of out-of-town petition circulators in violation of a law requiring circulators to live in the District. The challenge alleges that, to cover up the practice, organizers paid residents to sign circulator affidavits at the bottom of each petition or forged local signatures on the forms.
"What we have here is a group of traveling hustlers who see themselves as the modern-day incarnation of the carny travelers, flying from town to town, state to state, putting on a show, selling lies, scamming the locals and getting out of town one step ahead of the sheriff," said Dorothy Brizill, executive director of DCWatch and chief organizer of a new political action committee called DC Against Slots. "We are asking the Board of Elections and Ethics to do its duty to protect us against this corruption of the election process."
Angelo Paparella, president of the California company hired to run the petition drive, acknowledged that he made heavy use of out-of-town workers during the five-day campaign, which produced more than 50,000 signatures in support of the gambling initiative. Paparella said D.C. residents served as witnesses for the out-of-towners, a practice that is accepted elsewhere.
"We got all these signatures because people support the issue," Paparella said. "Nobody was duped into signing anything, as a supporter or a circulator."
Paparella said petition organizers referred several circulators who allegedly committed fraud to the elections board, but he said misdeeds were limited. Brizill's contention that thousands of signatures should be thrown out is "completely absurd," he said.
Brizill's challenge is the most detailed of three challenges filed with the elections board against the initiative, which seeks voter approval for a plan to install 3,500 slot machines on 14 acres in Northeast Washington at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road.
The elections board has scheduled a public hearing for 2 p.m. tomorrow to review the challenges. Spokesman Bill O'Field said the board is issuing subpoenas to summon witnesses, but he declined to identify them. The board has until Aug. 5 to determine whether slots backers have submitted the signatures of at least 17,599 registered voters -- the number required to qualify for the ballot -- and whether the petitions are valid.
In preparing yesterday's challenge, Brizill said she and about a dozen other activists reviewed many of the 3,869 petition forms submitted by slots supporters. They also interviewed at least 20 people who signed circulator affidavits and visited more than three dozen circulators' addresses.
Brizill said the investigation found that two groups of D.C. residents circulated petitions: politically connected individuals who were paid hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, and "vulnerable, homeless, and in a few cases mentally challenged people, who were paid a pittance or not paid at all, and who were duped into signing false affidavits for out-of-town circulators."
The latter group, Brizill said, included at least two severely mentally retarded men, one of whom "could barely say his name." She said the investigation also found evidence of a "signature party" held July 4 at the Red Roof Inn in Chinatown to copy names out of phone books.
In her letter to the board, Brizill called the petition drive "the most massive, most organized, and best financed scheme to break the election laws of the District of Columbia since the inception of home rule."
Earlier this month, the elections board's general counsel, Kenneth J. McGhie, suggested that the board would reject petitions unless they were physically circulated by D.C. residents. D.C. law requires circulators to live in the District and to attest on petition affidavits that they were "in the presence of each person who signed" the petition "at the time the appended signature was written." But the election board has never formally ruled on whether the law precludes out-of-town circulators entirely.
M. Dane Waters, founder of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, said the practice of using residents to witness signatures gathered by out-of-towners is "acceptable in many states, but it's very nebulous. . . . There's been a lot of debate about the responsibility of the witness and what proximity they need to be to the circulator to actually witness what's going on."
Paparella said he has used witness arrangements successfully in Utah, California, Michigan and Nevada. He said he flew about 50 out-of-town workers into the District two years ago to help with a drug-reform measure. At the time, no one challenged the arrangement.
That is not the case with the slots initiative. In addition to Brizill, lawyer Ronald L. Drake and Democratic activist John Capozzi have written to the elections board to complain about the use of out-of-towners.
"The gambling proponents . . . have tried to get this in front of the voters by breaking every possible law and rule," Capozzi said in an interview.
In a separate investigation, The Washington Post reviewed almost 2,000 petitions bearing 31,394 signatures submitted by slots supporters. The Post found that thousands appear to be invalid, primarily because the circulators lied about where they live, what they witnessed and who actually signed the names of D.C. voters.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.