The D.C. elections board yesterday threw out thousands of signatures gathered in support of the legalization of slot machines, saying a July petition drive illegally misrepresented the gambling initiative as a harbinger of jobs, improved public schools and better health care.
The board found that the drive was tainted by "troubling" and "pervasive" violations of law. Nonetheless, the three-member panel left open the possibility that the initiative would yet qualify for a spot on the Nov. 2 ballot. The board is scheduled to meet tomorrow to resolve the matter.
John Ray, chief advocate for the initiative, said the board's ruling wiped out well over half of the 56,000 signatures collected during a frenetic five-day petition drive. He said the remaining petitions are unlikely to contain 17,599 valid signatures, the number needed to put slots before District voters this fall.
"The ruling was not good for us," Ray, a former D.C. Council member, told reporters. Businessman Pedro Alfonso, another leading slots backer, added: "It will be extremely difficult to make the ballot."
Religious and community activists who have spent the past two months maneuvering to block the initiative were pleased. Given the board's broad condemnation of the signature-gathering process, they said, they are confident that the initiative will not survive.
"It won't make it. The numbers aren't there," said Dorothy Brizill, executive director of DCWatch and a spokeswoman for the anti-slots coalition. "The board went to great lengths to say there was misrepresentation. So many people signed [the petitions] without even knowing what they signed."
The board reserved the right to levy fines and impose other sanctions against slots supporters but so far has made no decision regarding penalties.
The ruling capped nine days of occasionally chaotic hearings that opened a window onto the nearly $700,000 campaign to bring gambling to the nation's capital. Funded in part by Shawn Scott and John K. Baldwin, St. Croix entrepreneurs who have tried for years to win a license to run a major gambling operation, 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.
Supporters say the gambling hall would generate $765 million a year in slots revenue, a quarter of which would be given to the District government.
Throughout the day yesterday, board members digested the testimony of more than three dozen witnesses. At 6 p.m., they convened in a stark hearing room at One Judiciary Square to deliver their verdict.
Lewis said the board concluded that the petition drive was divided into "two distinct signature-gathering operations." One, run out of Ray's downtown law office at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, hired D.C. residents and paid them about $6.50 per signature. Those circulators were carefully trained and well versed in D.C. election law, Lewis said.
The other operation was run primarily out of the Red Roof Inn in Chinatown by a California firm called Progressive Campaigns Inc., Lewis said. The firm recruited an army of petition circulators from Florida, Michigan and elsewhere who were paid about $3 per signature. The firm also hired subcontractors to train circulators for the high-pressure campaign, which Lewis described as overly ambitious rather than corrupt.
Still, she assailed virtually every aspect of the second operation. She said drive managers at the Red Roof Inn failed to study D.C. election law or properly train petition circulators and encouraged circulators to make false statements to persuade D.C. voters to sign up.
Lewis was particularly critical of subcontractor Stars & Stripes USA Inc., its owner, Carl Towe, and Ross Williams, a manager who worked for the Florida-based firm. Lewis said Williams acknowledged in testimony that he told circulators to focus on the benefits of gambling revenue, including better schools and health care, if a potential signer was resistant to the idea of gambling.
The fact that scores of petition circulators were told to make false statements "created a taint on the process" at the Red Roof Inn, Lewis said, prompting the board to throw out every petition submitted "under the rubric of Stars & Stripes."
The board also discarded dozens of petition forms marred by explicit fraud and forgery, including petition circulators who falsely claimed to have witnessed each signature. Those forms contained about 5,000 signatures, Ray said; Stars & Stripes, by contrast, submitted about half of the drive's signatures.
Ray disputed the board's reasoning, noting that the initiative encourages the D.C. Council to use slots revenue to improve schools and provide prescription drugs for the elderly.
"The idea that you can't mention what's in the proposed law is rather absurd," he said.
In a telephone interview, Williams said he was "extremely disappointed" by the board's ruling. "In a process that moved as quickly as this one did, some people may have taken advantage. But we caught it and isolated it. . . . I never told them to go out and misrepresent the petition."
Towe said the board's ruling "is ridiculous. It is horrible. It's awful. They are not telling the truth."
He acknowledged that 2,000 signatures may have been fraudulent but said that "the rest of the operation was by the books. . . . They are throwing out thousands and thousands of good signatures, and the really bad thing about this is that the people of Washington, D.C., who signed the petitions are denied the right to petition their government."