The D.C. investor for a proposed gambling hall offered a vigorous defense of petition circulators yesterday, saying tactics used to attract signers did not contradict a ruling last month by a D.C. Superior Court judge.
The testimony from businessman Pedro Alfonso came on the eighth consecutive day of hearings into allegations that laws were broken in a petition drive to get the slots machine initiative on the November ballot.
Wilma A. Lewis, chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, aggressively questioned Alfonso about the judge's ruling, which ordered the removal of language that said the D.C. Council would receive a nonbinding recommendation to spend its share of slots money to "improve public schools and to help senior citizens obtain prescription drugs."
Alfonso, who testified for most of the day, said it would have been "unconscionable" for circulators not to mention the benefits of slots to potential petition signers because the full text of the initiative included a discussion of those benefits.
"I think it would be a misrepresentation not to say it because it is in the initiative itself," he said. "You've got to tell the truth, the whole truth, everything. It is not just gaming."
Anti-slots activists, who have filed two challenges to the petition drive with the election board contend that, at the very least, proponents of the initiative and workers they hired to gather signatures violated the spirit of the judge's order.
The board questioned Alfonso about the use of brochures that said the gambling project would help create 1,500 jobs and a charitable trust to fund a literacy program for D.C. schoolchildren, and he acknowledged that they would have fostered "prejudice" for the slots initiative. Alfonso said the three-member committee behind the slots measure printed thousands of brochures, which were used by petition workers. Opponents say the claim about the literacy program is not true.
The opponents also point out that large numbers of petition workers donned yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the words, "SIGN UP FOR JOBS, SCHOOLS AND HEALTH CARE," a tactic they said was used to get around the judge's ruling.
Slots supporters submitted more than 56,000 signatures after a frenetic five-day effort aimed at getting slots on the Nov. 2 ballot. The initiative seeks voter approval of a plan to open a gambling hall with 3,500 slot machines at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE.
One of the board's attorneys asked Alfonso why gambling was not represented on the T-shirts since it is the central part of the initiative. Alfonso conceded that the initiative could have been better represented on the shirt.
"It was not a malicious step to misrepresent," he said. "I think we complied with the judge's order."
Alfonso said the shirts were not bought by the three-member committee but by Rob Newell, a financier from the U.S. Virgin Islands who is the other main investor in the project.
Alfonso said the committee did not know the shirts had been purchased until he and the others learned about them in media reports. He said the first time he saw one of the shirts was this week.
Slots supporters have said petition workers were ordered to stop wearing the shirts soon after the clothes arrived July 1. The attorney for the board, Rudolph McGann, asked why this was done if the shirts did not misrepresent the initiative. Alfonso responded that the committee wanted no distractions during the petition effort and that it sought to ensure that workers were not harassed by opponents of the slots initiative.
Noting the judge's ruling, Lewis asked if it would be appropriate to have shirts with references to strengthening education and helping the elderly buy prescription drugs. "Define 'appropriate,' " Alfonso said before answering, "It probably would not be in the best of taste."
Lewis noted that even before the judge's ruling, the board acted to have the words "jobs," "education" and "health care" removed from the short title of the initiative and that the committee then dropped those words from its name. Alfonso said the committee did it so "the consistency was there."
Last night, the owner of the California-based company hired to run the petition drive testified before the board for more than two hours. Angelo Paparella said it was a "strategic mistake'' for circulators to tell potential petition signers that slots money would go to schools or health care. He said that the problem was not the information but that giving out such information was not an efficient way to attract as many signers as possible.
"It gets into a detailed discussion about the issue, and that's not what we're there for," Paparella said. "It doesn't lend itself to meeting more people."
Earlier in the day, D.C. resident Tenisha Colbert testified under immunity that she signed the circulator's affidavit on petitions handled by an acquaintance, even though she did not witness many signatures.
Colbert said that a petition manager told her to sign after it became apparent her acquaintance had only old identification from Maryland. D.C. law requires that circulators be D.C. residents. According to records, Colbert submitted 74 petitions, totaling 818 signatures.
Colbert said the manager had no idea that the two women had gone out to collect signatures together and never asked if they circulated petitions near each other. She said she signed in the manager's room at the Red Roof Inn in Chinatown, and that while there, she heard many out-of-town circulators say they worked without a D.C. resident and needed one to sign their petition affidavits.
One of those who agreed to sign was her fiance, Antoine Jefferies, Colbert said. Testifying under immunity, Jefferies said the manager "was telling me it was a way to make money." Records show Jefferies' signature appears on 36 sheets bearing 518 signatures.
Staff writers Yolanda Woodlee and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.