- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 4, 2004

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics has yet to decide on whether to impose penalties on a committee trying to open a gambling hall in Northeast because of violations committed during a petition drive to put the initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot.

D.C. law states that the board can impose penalties of up to $200 per election violation, which could result in record fines reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The only time the board has imposed fines on a petition process was in 2002, when Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ re-election committee was fined $277,700 for submitting forged signatures to get his name on the Democratic Party primary ballot.

The fines would be levied only on the local investor, not the offshore firm that proposed opening a casino and has spent more than $700,000 on the lobbying effort.

Today, the elections board is scheduled to announce its conclusion about whether the gambling supporters have the requisite 17,599 signatures to put the initiative on the ballot.

Supporters are expected to appeal the board’s ruling Tuesday that petition circulators misrepresented the initiative by telling signers that it would help fund education and provide prescription-drug benefits to elderly residents. They said the ruling resulted in so many signatures being rejected that they likelyno longer have enough.

The initiative calls for building a gambling hall with 3,500 video lottery terminals — similar to slot machines — on New York Avenue between Bladensburg Road and Montana Avenue.

Pedro Alfonso, president and chief executive officer of the District-based telecommunications firm Dynamic Concepts Inc. and the head of the Citizens Committee for the Video Lottery Terminal Initiative, did not return phone calls yesterday for comment.

Mr. Alfonso and Rob Newell, who owns St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands-based North Atlantic Investments LLC, are the only two investors identified, though only Mr. Newell has paid for the lobbying effort.

Mr. Newell’s name does not appear on gambling-initiative documents because such a proposal must be submitted by a resident, according to D.C. law.

The names on the documents are those of Mr. Alfonso and Vickey Wilcher, treasurer of the group supporting the proposal, according to the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, the investigative arm of the ethics board. Mr. Alfonso and Miss Wilcher would be responsible for paying fines incurred by the committee.

Dorothy Brizill, who filed one of two challenges to the petition drive, said yesterday that the committee should be fined heavily.

“They knowingly submitted petitions that were bad,” said Mrs. Brizill, head of the government watchdog group DCWatch. “I think the message needs to be sent loud and clear, and sometimes the only way to get the message across is to hit them in the pocketbook.”

Among the elections board’s findings announced Tuesday was that initiative supporters failed to offer circulators proper training and oversight and lacked knowledge of election laws.

The board rejected all the petitions collected by the Florida-based signature-gathering firm Stars and Stripes USA Inc., which equals half of the total 3,869 petition sheets, said John Ray, a former D.C. Council member who is representing slots supporters.

But Mrs. Brizill thinks the number could be as high as 2,600.

The firm and the individual circulators who collected signatures also could be prosecuted for violating election laws.

It is still not clear whether the board would fine the committee per petition submitted, per signature collected or some combination of both.

If the board found evidence supporting accusations of widespread forgery — including reports of “signing parties” at which names were copied out of telephone books — fines could exceed $1 million.

The three board members who heard the Williams case — all of whom have since been replaced — cited the “egregious violation and blatant disregard for the integrity of the electoral process” during that petition drive.

But board Chairman Wilma A. Lewis said Tuesday that the board concluded that violations occurred because of the rushed effort to collect enough signatures in less than six days, not because of a planned effort to break laws.

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