THE DISTRICT

Appeals Court Expedites Slots Review

The D.C. Court of Appeals has agreed to expedite its review of a decision to bar the legalization of slot machine gambling from the Nov. 2 ballot and has scheduled a hearing for Sept. 8.

The court announced its plans in an order delivered yesterday to parties in the case, which pits gambling proponents against the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.

Last week, after nine days of hearings, the elections board concluded that a petition drive in support of the gambling initiative did not produce a sufficient number of valid signatures from D.C. voters to qualify for a spot on the ballot.

John Ray, an attorney for the gambling initiative, notified the court of his intention to appeal the verdict. The slots proposal would have qualified if the elections board had not thrown out nearly 7,000 signatures that, according to the board, had been tainted by forgery and fraud.

Ray also asked the court to expedite the appeal so D.C. voters might have a chance to vote on the gambling plan this year. The initiative would authorize the installation of 3,500 slot machines on a 14-acre site in Northeast Washington at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road.

The case will be heard by Associate Judges Vanessa Ruiz and Michael W. Farrell and Senior Judge John W. Kern III.

Police Recruiting at Convention Center

D.C. police will offer on-site testing for recruits tomorrow during an exposition of the department's specialized units and officers at the Washington Convention Center, officials said.

The fifth annual Police Expo will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Convention Center at 801 Mount Vernon Place NW, police said.

For more information, call 202-645-0445.

THE REGION

PETA Representative Applies to Run Zoo

A representative of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has applied to become director of the National Zoo, saying she would transform it into an animal sanctuary, return the giant pandas to China, send the elephants to a warmer climate and stop breeding animals "for a life of cruel captivity."

Debbie Leahy, director of PETA's Captive Animals & Entertainment Issues Department, said in a letter to the Smithsonian Institution, which oversees the zoo, that she would get new animals by rescuing those in circuses and roadside zoos.

"There's a growing sentiment that wild animals should not be caged for the purpose of entertainment," Leahy said.

The Smithsonian has appointed a search committee to find a new director to replace Lucy H. Spelman, who has announced plans to resign at the end of the year.

MARYLAND

Widening Planned for Beach Throughway

Part of a two-lane highway that helps carry vacationers to Maryland and Delaware beaches will be widened with the help of $14 million in state money.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) announced yesterday that engineers have begun designing the mid-Eastern Shore project. It will turn an additional 1.4 miles of Route 404 into a four-lane divided highway.

Transportation officials hope the work will be completed in about three years.

Another one-mile stretch of the thoroughfare is being widened as well, and that work is nearly finished.

The ultimate goal is to widen the remaining 17 miles of Route 404, all the way from Route 50 to the Delaware state line. It's a $211 million project that aims to make the busy road safer.

The road is a popular path for beachgoers trying to avoid Route 50.

Gas Leak Blamed for Seat Pleasant Fire

Fire officials in Prince George's County said a natural gas leak might be to blame for a fire that damaged a two-story home yesterday in Seat Pleasant.

Neighbors reported hearing an explosion about 5:30 a.m. in the 6600 block of Drylog Street.

Investigators say the blaze apparently began in the back of the home, in or near the kitchen. The blaze was quickly controlled and extinguished.

Damage is estimated at $130,000.

The house was unoccupied and had been listed for sale.

Rains Lead to Corn Crop Optimism

State agriculture officials said timely rains will help Maryland farmers harvest their biggest corn crop in four years.

Jeanne McCarthy-Kersey, Maryland agricultural statistics service deputy director, said the weather has been much better than last year's very wet conditions.

According to the production forecast released yesterday, Maryland's corn harvest will total 62 million bushels, 24 percent more than last year's 50 million. If the forecast holds, it would be the state's biggest corn crop since 2000.

The USDA predicts that Delaware will produce 19.5 million bushels of corn, slightly less than last year's harvest.

Soybean production is expected to rise in both states.

VIRGINIA

Possible Tornado Hits Danville Strip Mall

A suspected tornado destroyed a warehouse and damaged a department store and a fast-food restaurant yesterday in Danville, Va., a spokeswoman for the state Department of Emergency Management said.

The roof of a Wendy's restaurant and half the roof of a Marshall's department store in a strip shopping center collapsed, Dawn Eischen said. She did not know what type of warehouse was destroyed or whether the buildings are near one another.

"We suspect it was a tornado," Eischen said.

Susan Wright, assistant manager of the Marshall's, estimated that 150 people were in the store when the storm hit.

She said she herded panicked customers toward the back of the store as windows broke and ceiling tiles fell.

"I didn't hear the roar everyone talks about. I just heard people screaming," Wright said, adding that she has talked to others who reported hearing the "freight train" sound that people frequently describe tornadoes as making.

"Nathan Chapman walked away today a disappointed man, but a man who still believes he's innocent."

-- Attorney William R. "Billy" Martin, after a federal jury convicted his client,

a politically connected investment banker, of defrauding the Maryland

state retirement system of nearly $5 million. -- Page A1

Compiled from reports by staff writers Karlyn Barker and Lori Montgomery and the Associated Press.