The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics ruled yesterday that District residents who work as petition circulators can use out-of-town assistants to handle clipboards and solicit individuals for signatures.

The decision by the three-member panel, delivered by Chairman Wilma A. Lewis, was a setback for the coalition challenging the legality of a petition drive to put the legalization of slot machines on the Nov. 2 ballot. However, the ruling also fell short of being a clear-cut victory for proponents of the gambling initiative.

The board stated that the D.C. resident circulator "must be in such proximity to the signer" that he or she "can attest to the signing" and can make sure the aim of the initiative was not misrepresented.

"The board does not agree that the circulator must be the one holding the clipboard or the one who hands the clipboard to the signer," Lewis said at the hearing. But she stressed that the circulator must be engaged enough in the signature gathering to be "able to vouch for the integrity of the process."

John Ray, a former D.C. Council member and an attorney for the slots initiative, hailed the ruling, saying it tracked decisions by the Supreme Court and lower courts in other cases.

"It's good news for every citizen in the District of Columbia and the United States of America," he said. The city, he said, "can't . . . prevent nonresidents from participating in the political process."

D.C. circulators had been warned that submitting a false affidavit is punishable by up to a year in jail and up to $10,000 in fines. Yesterday, several witnesses identified as circulators appeared with letters of immunity from the D.C. attorney general's office. Holding such a letter, one witness said she had not signed any of the more than 30 pages of petitions bearing her name.

The question of how the board would rule on the technical but crucial definition of a circulator had remained unresolved during nearly a week of hearings. The board members are looking into allegations that the petition drive -- in which more than 56,000 signatures were collected -- illegally used workers from outside the District to circulate the forms. Slots opponents have accused many in the effort of forging names and committing other election law violations.

DCWatch Executive Director Dorothy Brizill, an anti-slots activist, said in an interview that she would have preferred a ruling that requires circulators to hold the clipboards but contended that the decision gives slots opponents ample room to contest many of the signatures on the proximity issue.

"It requires a certain level of engagement, so I think that it hurts their case," Brizill said. She added that the decision makes clear that the person who signs the circulator's affidavit on the back of the petition "must be in control" of the signature gathering.

The board's action preceded the appearance of several petition circulators from the District who invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination last week. Yesterday, they were back at the hearing after receiving new subpoenas and letters of immunity from the D.C. attorney general's office so they could testify.

Their testimony was in response to two formal challenges to the slots campaign, which gathered 56,044 signatures on 3,869 forms during a frenetic five-day period that ended July 6. The slots initiative seeks voter approval for a plan to open a gambling hall with 3,500 slot machines at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE.

Slots supporters have said that at least 17,599 signatures are valid, enough to place the initiative on the ballot. But the community activists opposing the initiative have challenged thousands of petitions, saying dozens of circulators lied on affidavits attesting that they were D.C. residents and that they witnessed the signatures.

Evelyn Gerst, a housekeeper and guest representative at the Red Roof Inn in Chinatown, one of the bases of operation for the petition drive, said she signed the circulator's affidavit on a number of blank forms that were later used to collect signatures. She said she did not witness any of the signatures.

Gerst told the board that an out-of-town petition worker staying in Room 724 approached her at the hotel and offered her money to sign the sheets. Records show that she signed 38 forms bearing 607 signatures.

"I looked at them [the petitions], and he said to be his witness, just sign the bottom line," explained Gerst, who said she was paid a total of $140 for her signatures. "He said all you have to . . . be is a D.C. resident. But he told me not to mention to anyone that I was signing petitions."

Danielle Campbell told the board that she signed stacks of petitions as a circulator working with two men from California. She said that on two of the days, July 3 and 4, she did not witness any signatures because she did not leave her house. Campbell said she signed the completed sheets at the Red Roof Inn. She signed 51 petitions bearing 690 signatures, records show.

Campbell, who was paid nearly $230, said a California worker told her about a signature party at the hotel July 4 during which several workers copied names out of the phone book.

Andre Rempson testified that he was to be paid $3 for each signature he collected and 50 cents for each petition he signed. He said he collected about 336 signatures and began signing petition sheets at the Red Roof Inn in Room 314 on the last day of the petition drive.

Rempson said an out-of-town circulator, Mike Jones, told him, "Here, sign these. Here, sign these." At one point, he said, Jones was passing him two sheets at a time. Records show Rempson signed 52 petition sheets with 709 names.

At least two circulators vouched for the validity of their signatures. Last night, Vernon V. Humbles of Southeast Washington testified that he watched as each person stood in front of him and signed. When Brizill said some of the signatures looked similar and asked him whether they were forged, he said, "Absolutely not."

"That's crazy," he said in an interview as he left the hearing. "I worked my tail off."

Staff writers Yolanda Woodlee and Allan Lengel contributed to this report.

Chairman Wilma Lewis said the circulator must be "able to vouch for the integrity of the process."