The first name of a member of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics was wrong in the Aug. 15 Close to Home piece "Ripe for Another Rip-Off." Her name is Lenora Cole Alexander. (Published 8/22/04)

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, under the leadership of former federal prosecutor Wilma Lewis, is trying to determine what sanctions to impose against the Citizens Committee for the D.C. Video Lottery Terminal Initiative and the group's associates for their handling of a recent petition drive to bring slot machines to the nation's capital. But it will take more than a fine to ensure that violating the city's election laws doesn't become a biennial affair.

Two years ago Mayor Anthony A. Williams's reelection committee was charged with fraud in the petition-nominating process. As a result, his honor was kicked off the ballot for the September 2002 Democratic primary. The D.C. Appeals Court subsequently upheld that decision, and the elections board -- then headed by attorney Benjamin Wilson -- levied a penalty on the reelection committee of more than $250,000, an unprecedented act in the history of home rule.

Many thought that this action would send the unequivocal message that the District would protect and defend its laws zealously. But the recent campaign to bring slots to the city -- orchestrated by local business leader Pedro Alfonso, former D.C. Council member John Ray, political operatives Margaret Gentry and Vickey Wilcher and a cabal of shadowy figures based in the Virgin Islands -- suggests otherwise.

After 10 days of intense public hearings, Lewis and her elections board colleagues, Charles R. Lowery Jr. and Lenore Cole Alexander, concluded that the slots committee and the people it employed deliberately broke election laws, including misrepresenting the purpose of the initiative, using nonresidents to circulate petitions and forging voters' names and signatures. How could this happen again?

Although many people were indignant when the Williams committee submitted thousands of fraudulent petition sheets -- some bearing the names of celebrities such as Martha Stewart -- neither the elections board nor the D.C. Council moved to prevent a repeat.

For example, the council did not increase the budget for the Board of Elections and Ethics to allow for a team of paid investigators with the prime responsibility of serving as field monitors, surveying the campaign committees as they collect petitions and promote their candidate, initiative or referendum. This would have been helpful during the recent debacle.

The elections board began receiving complaints about irregularities involving slots circulators almost as soon as the petition gatherers hit the streets. But the board lacked an investigative arm and by law had to wait for a formal challenge to be filed at the end of the petition-gathering process before it could begin to probe allegations of irregularities. City leaders also didn't remove the burden placed on average citizens to serve as enforcers of local laws. Were it not for Dorothy Brizill, Gary Imhoff, Regina James, Ronald L. Drake, the Rev. David Argo, the Rev. Dean Snyder and a handful of other activists, the proponents of slots could have broken the law with impunity and ultimately benefited from their illegal activity.

"Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me," goes the adage, and it surely applies to the District, which remains ripe for another petition saga because of the loopholes in the law along with lax law enforcement.

When so much is at stake -- such as with a gambling proposal -- merely imposing a fine, even a stiff one, can be perceived as the cost of doing business. It certainly won't rattle those who are looking at projects that will bring in nearly $1 billion in annual revenue; to them $250,000 is walking-around money.

An industry of petition signature-gatherers has developed. The people hired by the Citizens Committee for the D.C. Video Lottery Terminal Initiative, who wreaked havoc in the District, have moved on to Ohio, perhaps to do equal damage.

If D.C. leaders want to ensure that the city and its residents aren't victimized again, they must close the gaps in the city's laws and strengthen enforcement. Taking a page from businesses that post pictures of shoplifters and check kiters for all to see, they may want to start by notifying the rest of the nation to be on the lookout for the mercenaries who make a mockery of democracy.

-- Jonetta Rose Barras

is the political analyst

for NPR affiliate WAMU-FM.