Three people who participated in a petition drive to put the legalization of slot machines on the Nov. 2 ballot invoked the Fifth Amendment yesterday and refused to answer questions from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, which is investigating allegations of fraud and forgery in connection with the gambling initiative.
Evelyn Gerst, Gwendolyn Squirewell and Andre Rempson signed affidavits attesting that they circulated petitions in support of the gambling initiative during a five-day campaign that ended July 6. Gerst's name appears on 38 petitions bearing the signatures of 607 people; Squirewell's name appears on 59 petitions bearing 953 signatures; and Rempson's name appears on 52 petitions bearing 709 names, records show.
The three declined to vouch for the validity of those signatures after an elections board attorney informed them that it is a crime to claim in an affidavit to have witnessed something they did not witness and that incriminating statements would be turned over to the U.S. attorney's office. Lying on a petition affidavit is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.
"I don't want to incriminate myself," Gerst told the board. She left the hearing room with teary eyes and, hands shaking, declined to comment further.
Anti-slots activists who are challenging the validity of more than 56,000 signatures collected by slots supporters said the refusal of the trio to testify lends credence to claims that the petition drive is marred by widespread violations of local election laws. The elections board has until Aug. 5 to decide whether to allow slots supporters to seek voter approval for a plan to install 3,500 slot machines in a gambling hall on a 14-acre site at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE.
One of the challengers, lawyer Ronald L. Drake, said he blames drive organizers, rather than the circulators, for the violations. "I would rather lose the case than interfere in any way with witnesses taking the Fifth Amendment to protect themselves against possible prosecution in circumstances into which they were led by the proponents," Drake said.
Businessman Pedro Alfonso, the chief proponent of the gambling initiative, said the vast majority of signatures will prove to be valid even if a few petition circulators were confused about the rules. The board must find that slots supporters submitted at least 17,599 valid signatures of registered D.C. voters in order to grant them a spot on the ballot.
"Let's face it: These people are laymen and are not represented by counsel here," Alfonso said. "People take the Fifth and it doesn't make them guilty. In fact, if [election officials] want to discount those signatures, it's okay with us."
Yesterday's sometimes chaotic hearing was reminiscent of elections board proceedings two years ago, when charges of fraud and forgery by petition circulators kept D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) off the Democratic primary ballot.
The first full day of testimony did not offer a promising start for slots supporters, who are contesting allegations that D.C. residents were paid or duped into signing affidavits on petition forms that were circulated by out-of-town workers. Under D.C. law, petition circulators must be D.C. residents.
Anti-slots activists have also accused petition circulators of using false addresses and forging hundreds of signatures.
Subpoenas were issued for 27 people to appear yesterday in a second-floor hearing room at One Judiciary Square. Sixteen could not be served, primarily because they could not be found at the addresses listed as their homes on petition affidavits, according to election board attorneys. Three others were contacted but said they would not attend the hearings.
Of the eight who showed up to testify, three said they worked alone and could vouch for every one of the nearly 2,000 signatures that appear on petition forms bearing their names.
One of the three, Tenisha Colbert, contradicted statements she made to a Washington Post reporter last week. She told the newspaper that she had signed petitions circulated by out-of-towners and that "I couldn't see every signature."
Under questioning yesterday, Colbert acknowledged that as many as 14 signatures on her forms appeared to have similar handwriting styles and said she could offer no explanation.
The remaining five witnesses included Gerst, Squirewell and Rempson, who told The Post last week that he copied names out of the phone book and forged signatures. The testimony of two other witnesses was delayed after a debate broke out over the legality of signing petitions circulated by someone else.
Kenneth McGhie, general counsel to the elections board, was repeating his admonition that it is a crime to sign an affidavit without personally circulating the petition when John Ray, general counsel for the slots initiative, questioned McGhie's definition of a circulator.
Ray asserted that nothing in D.C. law bars the circulator from working with assistants who actually handle the forms and that those assistants do not necessarily have to comply with residency requirements. He said at least three federal appellate courts have found residency requirements for petition circulators unconstitutional if they "severely burden political speech by 'drastically reducing the number of persons . . . available to circulate petitions.' "
Wilma A. Lewis, the elections board chairman, said the board would decide today whether to accept Ray's argument. The decision could affect thousands of signatures submitted in support of the slots initiative. Meanwhile, Lewis dismissed two witnesses who signed petitions for out-of-towners and asked them to return after the board had made its decision.
Election board attorneys, who have issued at least 72 subpoenas in connection with the investigation, said they expect as many as 13 witnesses to appear before the board today.