RESIDENTS OF the District ought to be offended by the blatant attempt by out-of-town gambling interests to foist as many as 3,500 video slot machines -- often described as the crack cocaine of gambling -- on the nation's capital. Knowing that city leaders would never support a scheme to introduce this highly addictive form of gambling, these deep-pocket speculators hired John Ray, a lawyer and former D.C. politician, to lead an effort to place their gambling plan on the November ballot as a voter initiative. The petitions are being circulated on the streets by a group of hired hands, some of them allegedly not even District residents -- which, if true, is a violation of D.C. elections law. There are so many questions about the impact of the project on the social health of the city that a prudent person should refuse to sign.
As Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) observed in a news release yesterday: "The sales pitch [gambling promoters] are using for this -- jobs, education, healthcare for seniors -- is bogus. What it would really mean," she added, "is that 75 percent of the proceeds would go to a few investors, who would get significantly richer, and the mere 25 percent that is left over will have to be spent by the city to address the problems created by having a huge gambling and drinking mecca in our inner city." She is absolutely correct.
The slot machines aren't even in place and their backers are already trying to run a game on the city. For instance, under the terms of the ballot initiative, the identities of major investors in the scheme could be hidden if their interest in the gambling license is less than 50 percent and is held through a bank, mutual fund or regulated financial institution. That arrangement prevents the city from knowing whether the investors are unsuitable. Language in the ballot initiative also "impermissibly restrict[s] the ability of future D.C. Councils to act," according to the city's attorney general (formerly corporation counsel), Robert Spagnoletti. And what is known of the brain behind the scheme -- Shawn Scott, a former Las Vegas resident who now lives in the U.S. Virgin Islands -- ought to give pause to any would-be petition signer. Mr. Scott, who brought the plan to Mr. Ray, has been denied or failed to obtain gambling licenses in five states where regulators found evidence of mismanagement, irregular accounting practices and hidden partnerships. Mr. Ray declares that Mr. Scott is no longer associated with the D.C. slots drive. But along with D.C. entrepreneur and local investor Pedro Alfonso, the other identified major investor in the project is Rob Newell, a Virgin Islands financier and business associate of -- who else? -- Shawn Scott.
Does the District need to add to its list of social ills "quick play=big losses" video slots, the most habit-forming kind of machine gambling? Unfortunately, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who ought to be standing with the council and civic leaders in opposition to slots, has gone wobbly. He says he doesn't like gambling but will sign the petition. That's not leadership. Mrs. Schwartz asks the right questions: "Do we want to bring the problems of habitual gambling to D.C.? Don't we have too many people living in poverty already? And how many people can you name who have actually walked away with money at such establishments?"
Her clincher: "We are a city on the rise and we don't need to be bought, and brought down." That is exactly what legalized slot machines will do.