D.C. election officials yesterday levied a fine of $622,880 against promoters of a plan to legalize slot machines in the nation's capital, the largest penalty ever assessed for a violation of city election laws.
In a 47-page ruling, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics concluded that businessman Pedro Alfonso and other local promoters of the gambling initiative demonstrated a "clear indifference" to the integrity of the electoral process last summer in their management of a petition drive marred by fraud, forgery and other irregularities.
The board found that Alfonso and other officers of a political action committee formed to promote the slots initiative essentially abandoned a substantial portion of the campaign to consultants and failed to rein in their hired hands when gambling opponents accused them of bringing in an army of out-of-towners to circulate petitions in violation of local law. They also failed to "perform even a cursory examination" of the signatures they submitted to the Elections Board in hopes of getting the initiative on the 2004 ballot, the board found.
"Such a complete disregard by [Alfonso and others] for the bona fides of the petition circulation activities over which they retained ultimate control and responsibility is utterly reprehensible and falls far below any conceivable standard by which the proposers' conduct should be measured," the board wrote.
The slots campaign was marked by "significant and pervasive irregularities and improprieties of a magnitude never previously experienced in this jurisdiction," the board wrote. "The illegal activities compromised, and made a mockery of, the integrity of the electoral process."
The penalties stem from a frenzied petition drive, conducted over five days in early July 2004, aimed at putting the issue of slot machines before District voters. If approved by voters, the initiative would authorize the installation of 3,500 slot machines in a gambling parlor that would be constructed in Northeast Washington at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road.
The board took no action against the offshore gambling entrepreneurs who bankrolled the slots campaign and paid Alfonso, Vickey Wilcher and Margaret Gentry consulting fees to act as their local representatives. Under District law, the board wrote, the political action committee is legally responsible for the petition drive.
But Shawn Scott, Rob Newell and their associates from the U.S. Virgin Islands might wind up paying the fines anyway, said Kenneth J. McGhie, the election board's counsel. Alfonso, Wilcher and Gentry, who have resigned their committee posts, are not personally liable for the fines, he said. "Nothing is being assessed against them as individuals. No one's going after their house. The fine is against the committee."
The committee now is under the control of Johnny Clint Hyatt, a Louisiana man who works for Newell and has moved to the District. As of this week, the committee had $3,410 in the bank, according to its attorney, George Jones.
The board offered to reduce the fine to $575,000 if the committee pays by Aug. 16. McGhie acknowledged that the St. Croix group, which has spent at least $1.7 million on the slots effort, could choose to shut down the committee.
Jones said he does not know whether Scott, Newell and their associates will pay the fine or appeal the board's ruling. Francis D. Carter, the attorney for Alfonso, Wilcher and Gentry, said he is reviewing the decision.
"I'm disappointed," Jones said. "I really don't know where we go from here."
Gambling opponents said they were pleased with the decision, which they had been awaiting for months. The fine is more than twice that imposed on Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) for submitting forged signatures on behalf of his 2002 reelection campaign.
"In terms of election law violations, it's a massive fine and very impressive," said Gary Imhoff, vice president of the government watchdog organization DCWatch. "Unfortunately, in terms of the money available to gambling interests, it's not large enough to deter them from doing it again."
Scott and his associates had proposed to build the gambling hall and surround it with restaurants, movie theaters, a bowling alley, a hotel and a zone for kids. They estimated that the development would have generated $765 million a year in slots revenue, a quarter of which would have been given to the city.
With Alfonso as its chief local representative and former D.C. Council member John Ray as its attorney, the gambling initiative cleared a series of procedural hurdles and won the right to circulate petitions at the end of June. Under deadlines set by D.C. law, that left them five days to collect the signatures of 17,599 registered D.C. voters if they wanted to qualify for the November ballot.
Gambling promoters hired several consultants to conduct the campaign. Among the consultants was Stars and Stripes Inc., a Florida firm that set up shop at Red Roof Inn in Chinatown. In hearings last summer, the board found that the operation was riddled with fraud, including circulators who copied names onto petitions out of the D.C. phone book. Several D.C. residents admitted that they had falsely claimed on petition forms to have gathered hundreds of signatures, which in fact were collected by an army of nonresidents.
The board threw out thousands of tainted signatures and barred the initiative from the ballot.
Jones and Carter have argued that Alfonso and the slots committee should not be held responsible for the actions of Stars and Stripes, claiming the firm was an "independent contractor" with sole responsibility for the quality of its work.
"The opinion implies that if only the members of the committee had done more, this wouldn't have happened. But it's not clear that there's any relationship between what the members are criticized for and what actually happened here," Jones said.
In yesterday's ruling, the board rejected that argument, finding that, as the committee itself acknowledged, it "never relinquished final authority" over the initiative process.