The D.C. elections board heard closing arguments last night following hearings that probed allegations of fraud and other irregularities in an initiative to legalize gambling in the District, with opponents saying that the committee behind the petition drive "failed in its duty to train, supervise and oversee the circulators."
"The flouting of the election laws was so pervasive, it should not be able to stand," said Dorothy Brizill, an activist involved in one of two challenges to the five-day petition effort last month to get the gambling measure on the November ballot. "This was an enterprise to do it wrong," she told the hearing.
Brizill contended that the nine days of hearings at the Board of Elections and Ethics also revealed that large numbers of petition circulators were unwilling to stand behind affidavits they signed on their petitions that state they witnessed all signatures on their forms. Elections board attorney Terri D. Stroud disclosed yesterday that of the 103 circulators who were subpoenaed to testify at the proceedings, 15 appeared.
Stroud told the hearing that a total of 35 circulators who were served with subpoenas "just did not respond." She added that the board was unable to deliver subpoenas to 53 petition workers whom the challengers wanted to call as witnesses.
According to a list of the circulators the board failed to serve, 10 listed homeless shelters as their addresses on the petition affidavits, a half dozen did not live where they claimed to on the forms and another half dozen addresses did not exist. The list also showed that 16 circulators claimed to reside in apartment buildings to which the board subpoena server could not gain access or that the petition workers failed to write down an apartment number.
"We ask the board to reject the petitions submitted by those circulators because it cannot place confidence in their affidavits," Brizill said in her closing argument.
The board members had been looking into claims that the petition drive -- in which more than 56,000 signatures were submitted -- used workers from outside the District illegally to circulate the forms and then had D.C. residents sign the affidavits. Slots opponents have accused many in the campaign of forging names, some out of phone books, misrepresenting the initiative to get people to sign and committing other election law violations.
The board's chairman, Wilma A. Lewis, is set to issue an oral ruling on the two challenges at 4 p.m. today. The board has until Thursday to determine whether the petition drive produced enough valid signatures of registered D.C. voters -- at least 17,599 -- to qualify the initiative for the ballot on Nov. 2.
In his closing arguments, the proponents' attorney, John Ray, acknowledged that there was fraud on the part of some workers involved in the signature-gathering effort, but he emphasized that it was never encouraged or condoned by the organizers of the campaign.
"This board identified and heard folks come here and testify about wrongdoing, which we do not condone," Ray said. "It is wrongdoing that benefited those individuals. It was not wrongdoing that leaders of this committee put together to achieve a certain goal."
"All you can do is put in place the best system you can to try and prevent them [from cheating]. And I think we did that," Ray said. "Having said that, the courts have said that where a registered voter signs a petition in good faith, he ought to be able to have that signature count."
Earlier in the evening, Brizill implored the three-member panel to toss out petitions containing thousands of signatures collected by six D.C. resident circulators who testified under immunity that they signed the affidavits on numerous sheets even though they did not witness any of the signatures. Some of those forms were among the 389 petitions that Ray asked the board to withdraw Thursday.
The 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. But the anti-slots activists have argued that fraud was deeply rooted in the signature-gathering effort.
Brizill said that two District residents testified that they did not sign the affidavits on a total of 58 petitions that bore their signatures as the circulators.
"The systematic forgery of affidavit signatures, not just of the two witnesses . . . but also of several affidavit signers who could not be located, shows that fraud was central to the entire operation," she said.
Brizill noted that the signaturecollecting effort was basically divided into two operations. One was run by the slots committee from Ray's law office at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in Northwest Washington and hired local petition workers. They were paid significantly more per signature than their counterparts who were based out of the Red Roof Inn in Chinatown, where a California company hired by the committee ran the operation and flew in out-of-town petition workers.
"The committee relied on this structure to insulate itself from responsibility for the actions of the circulators on the streets, but the committee cannot repudiate its responsibility," Brizill said. "By its failure to supervise and oversee . . . the committee allowed what these hearings have shown was widespread . . . violations of D.C. election laws."