The U.S. attorney's office yesterday dropped all threats that it would prosecute supporters of legalized gambling in the District of Columbia for violating an election law, a move that should make it easier to get the gambling issue on next year's May 6 primary ballot.
Until Assistant U.S. Attorney John W. Polk announced the decision in U.S. District Court, members of the D.C. Committee on Legalized Gambling could have faced charges stemming from a election petition drive last summer.
In court documents, they admitted hiring more than 50 young people to collect signatures of voters seeking a citywide vote on gambling legalization, an apparent violation of a referendum and initiative law enacted earlier this year by the City Council.
Fearing prosecution that could disrupt their renewed drive to get the issue on the ballot, the committee for gambling went to court last week in an effort to overturn the antihiring provision. It also asked the court to remove the $1,000 limitation on contributions to the gambling initiative campaign.
U.S. District Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer, in a preliminary ruling last week, held that the ban on hiring and the $1,000 limitation apparently violated the rights of the gambling committee to free expression under the First Amendment.
Oberdorfer said yesterday that he would issue a declaratory judgment spelling out these findings.
Cecily Collier, acting general counsel of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, and assistant corporation counsel G. Lindsay Simmons, representing the rest of the city government, told Oberdorfer they would not contest the ruling.
The action in court makes it possible for the gambling committee to hire signature collectors, if it chooses to do so, in order to meet a new Jan. 6 deadline set by the elections board for the filing of petitions. The action also will permit the board to process the petitions without further challenge of those provisions.
The gambling initiative would legalize parimutuel betting on sports events, such as jai alai games, and establish a city-run lottery. It also would legalize charitable raffles and some forms of social gambling.
Predictably, gambling supporters were pleased and opponents were angered by yesterday's developments.
"It puts us in the position to pay solicitors and raise the [campaign] money with a great deal more ease," said Brant Coopersmith, chairman of the gambling committee. Coopersmith also had been chairman of a citizen committee created by the City Council that recommended gambling legalization last year.
The Rev. John D. Bussey, pastor of Bethesda Baptist Church in Northeast Washington and a member of the anti-gambling Committee of 100 Ministers, said he was dismayed.
After hearing the court deliberations, Bussey said he was "confused by the seemingly complete surrender of the U.S. attorney and the two city lawyers who should be working for the citizens . . . who can plainly see the [law] violations and the dangers [of legalized gambling] to the community."
Council member William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5), who had blocked approval of a gambling referendum by the council as chairman of its Government Operations Committee, said he was outraged that the two city lawyers "did not put forth some effort to defend the law" when it came under attack.