Two District residents told the D.C. elections board yesterday that their names were forged on dozens of petitions to put the legalization of slot machines on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Forrest L. Jackson, a courtesy clerk at a Safeway store on Capitol Hill, said he did not circulate any of the 33 petition forms that bear his name. Jackson said he did sign a petition in support of the slots initiative and offered his identification cards to the circulators. But the men, who did not identify themselves, then disappeared from the Safeway parking lot and did not return Jackson's ID cards until the next day, he said.
A second witness, Stephen Atkins, said he circulated two petition forms, but he could not vouch for 17 other forms that bear his name. Asked by anti-slots activists, who are challenging the petition drive, whether he recognized his signature on a series of petition affidavits, Atkins looked at the signatures and answered: "No" and "Nope."
The Board of Elections and Ethics voted to throw out the 17 forms on which Atkins's signature had been forged. But it delayed a decision on Jackson's forms after John Ray, an attorney for the slots initiative, said he found Jackson's signature on an agreement petition circulators were asked to sign in order to collect as much as $6.50 per signature.
Ray said the handwriting on the agreement clearly matches the signatures on Jackson's ID cards.
Jackson and Atkins were among half a dozen witnesses who testified before the elections board, which is investigating allegations of fraud, forgery and other violations of local election laws. During a five-day petition drive that ended July 6, slots supporters collected more than 56,000 signatures in support of a plan to install 3,500 slot machines in a gambling hall on New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE.
To win a spot on the ballot, slots supporters must prove that at least 17,599 are the valid signatures of registered D.C. voters. The board has until Aug. 5 to determine whether the petition drive has met that goal.
A key question in the proceedings is whether a California company hired by slots supporters to manage the campaign flouted the law by using out-of-town workers to circulate some of the petitions. Under D.C. law, only city residents can circulate petitions.
Anti-slots activists allege that the out-of-towners paid or duped residents into signing affidavits on petitions that had been circulated by others. Those petitions, opponents argue, should be thrown out.
But during a lengthy argument yesterday, Ray told the board that local law is sufficiently flexible to permit out-of-town workers to assist resident circulators. The law's sole requirement, Ray said, is that people who sign the petition affidavits stand close enough to attest that they were "in the presence" of every voter who signed the forms.
Elections board Chairman Wilma A. Lewis interrupted Ray to ask about a memo, written by an independent contractor for the slots campaign and distributed on July 2 after news reports called attention to the presence of out-of-town circulators. The memo states that "only D.C. residents can gather signatures" and that "nonresidents must not participate in the signature-gathering process in any way."
Ray said that the memo was "meant to hold us to a higher standard" than is required so that the slots initiative could avoid legal challenges. If the petition drive failed to meet that higher standard, Ray said, "I don't think it should be held against us."
The memo's author, Clint Hyatt, also testified yesterday. Although he was in charge of overseeing the training of petition circulators, Hyatt acknowledged that he never read D.C. law regarding voter initiatives. On a scale of 1 to 10, Hyatt, a Louisiana native whose last major job was in Colorado, said he would rate his knowledge of local election law at "probably a 3 or a 4."
The board made no decision on whether to accept Ray's argument. In order to continue with the proceedings, the board decided to "give even greater precision" to the definition of circulator, Lewis said in an interview. General counsel Kenneth McGhie revised his warning to witnesses, saying it is a crime not to be "physically in the presence of" petition signers in order to truthfully sign the affidavits. Previously, McGhie had told witnesses that it is a crime to sign affidavits on petitions circulated by someone else.
Lewis did not indicate when the board would settle the matter. "We want to take our time and make sure that we make the right call," Lewis said.
Without a ruling, two more residents who participated in the petition drive, Tanica Hunter and Bobbie Diggs, invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions from the board, bringing to five the number of petition circulators who declined to vouch for petitions bearing their names.
Hunter signed 59 petitions bearing 765 signatures, and Diggs signed 76 petitions bearing 797 signatures. Lying on a petition affidavit carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Before invoking the Fifth Amendment, Diggs told the board that he did an honest job of collecting signatures with two men from out of town. But he said, "You know I would be lying to say I watched every one of those signatures."
The board heard from Robert Price, a senior pastor at the United House of Prayer for All People, who opposes the gambling initiative. He said his signature was forged on petition forms submitted by Andre Rempson.
Rempson invoked the Fifth Amendment on Thursday. Earlier, he told The Washington Post that he had copied names out of the phone book and forged signatures.
Asked how obvious forgeries could have escaped the notice of drive organizers, Hyatt said, "If it were on [July] 5th or 6th, it could have been possible that it slipped through."
The board plans to continue to review the petition challenges through the weekend.