- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics yesterday explained in a written account why it rejected thousands of signatures collected in support of a gambling initiative and targeted the strongest argument likely to be raised on appeal.

The 52-page order from board members Wilma A. Lewis, Charles Lowery and Lenora Cole follows closely an oral opinion offered last week that the petition-collection process was “fatally flawed.”

It concluded, among other things, that the Citizens Committee for the D.C. Video Lottery Terminal Initiative improperly used out-of-town circulators to collect signatures instead of assisting D.C. collectors, employed circulators who forged signatures, failed to exercise oversight of circulators, and misrepresented the substance of the initiative to signers.

John Ray, a former D.C. Council member and an attorney for the gambling proponents, filed a notice of appeal on Aug. 6 and has until Wednesday to submit a brief to the court.

Mr. Ray has not indicated the grounds for his appeal, but he has disputed the board’s conclusion that circulators were misrepresenting the initiative by telling signers it would help fund education and provide prescription-drug benefits to the elderly.

He said a recommendation to that effect appears in the 26-page initiative for the development of a $500 million gambling emporium in Northeast.

The board addressed that issue at length in its order, saying there was “not even a hint” that schools and health care were anything more than recommendations, because there was no guarantee the council would allocate revenue from the casino to those areas.

“Thus, although the initiative, if passed, would have included a strong recommendationthat the council allocate funds from the video lottery terminals to education and health care, it was not within the power of the proponents to actually produce this result,” the order said.

Mr. Ray could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The board made its decision based on 10 days of testimony during a hearing challenging the legitimacy of the petitions.

The order also said supporters of the initiative responded with “deafening silence” to revelations of rampant violations of elections laws by a Florida-based professional signature-gathering firm called Stars and Stripes Inc., which was headquartered at the Red Roof Inn in Northwest.

“In essence, the proponents simply remained mum — choosing not to even cross-examine some of the adverse witnesses — in the face of the indisputably troubling evidence of wrongdoing in the operation at the Red Roof Inn. Their repeated refrain that the improprieties were isolated instances and the product of ‘a few bad apples’ was simply insufficient.”

The board also recognized in the order that it was within its rights to discard all the petitions, but that it was mindful of its responsibility to “protect the First Amendment rights of D.C. voters in the initiative context.”

As a result, the board tossed out about 7,000 signatures collected by 67 circulators obviously affiliated through hiring or training with Stars and Stripes.

While the board indicated that it could not determine the affiliation for a large number of circulators, the result of the signatures it disallowed was that supporters were left with only 14,687 of the required 17,599 signatures to put the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The order also said the board reserves the right to assess penalties against supporters of the initiative.

The appeal is scheduled for Sept. 8 in the D.C. Court of Appeals.

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