- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics yesterday threw out what supporters thought to be at least 50 percent of the signatures collected in support of a gambling initiative after ruling that circulators violated D.C. election laws during the petition drive.

Board Chairman Wilma A. Lewis especially faulted the operations of Stars and Stripes, a professional signature-gathering firm that worked on the petition drive out of the Red Roof Inn in Northwest.

Mrs. Lewis threw out the petition sheet of every circulator tied to the firm.

“There were several issues that the board found troubling with regard to the operations out of the hotels and particularly the Red Roof Inn,” Mrs. Lewis said.

It could not be determined how many signatures were collected by Stars and Stripes circulators, but all sides agreed that the board’s ruling cut deeply into the 56,044 signatures submitted.

By law, the board has until tomorrow to conclude a review determining whether supporters collected the minimum 17,599 valid signatures from registered D.C. voters required to put the issue on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Lawyer John Ray, a former D.C. Council member who argued on behalf of casino proponents during the 10-day hearing challenging the petitions, estimated that at least half the signatures submitted were collected by Stars and Stripes.

“The ruling was not good for us,” Mr. Ray said. “Stars and Stripes was a big part of this process. I think it’s very, very difficult without those signatures in there.”

Two other firms were subcontracted to collect signatures by the main contractor, California-based PCI Inc., but Mrs. Lewis said there was not enough evidence of wrongdoing to dismiss the petitions that those firms submitted.

Pedro Alfonso, head of the D.C.-based telecommunications firm Dynamic Concepts Inc. and the sole local investor involved in the project, was less than certain about whether enough signatures remained in the wake of the ruling.

“I think the chances have been minimized considerably,” Mr. Alfonso said. “We’ll have to go back and look at the count based on the court’s decision.”

Dorothy Brizill, executive director of the government watchdog group DCWatch, estimated from her review of the petitions that Stars and Stripes was responsible for collecting at least two-thirds of the signatures submitted.

By that estimation, the board’s action yesterday left the petition drive with about 18,700 signatures, with 17,599 needed.

Mrs. Brizill filed one of the challenges on behalf of DCWatch with the group D.C. Against Slots. D.C. lawyer Ron Drake filed a separate challenge but the two challenges were heard together.

Mrs. Brizill predicted that the board’s ruling would doom the initiative.

“The numbers aren’t there,” Mrs Brizill said. “I think the board in its decision upheld 95 percent of our challenge.”

The board agreed with the challengers that trainers associated with the professional signature-gathering firms lacked knowledge of D.C. election laws and details of the proposed initiative.

Mrs. Lewis said the evidence showed that circulators were instructed to misrepresent the gambling initiative by telling petition signers that it would support education and health care for D.C. residents.

She also reaffirmed the board’s decision that D.C. residents acting as circulators can use out-of-town “assistants” to help them collect signatures, but she said that in this case, the out-of-town circulators were in control of the process while D.C. residents worked as assistants.

However, she stopped short of validating the challengers’ accusations that casino supporters plotted to violate election law.

“This resulted principally from the fact that 17,599 signatures were being collected in a six-day period,” Mrs. Lewis said.

The Video Lottery Terminal Initiative of 2004 would authorize a $500 million complex with 3,500 video lottery terminals, similar to slot machines, on New York Avenue between Montana Avenue and Bladensburg Road in Northeast.

The slots would generate revenues estimated at $765 million a year, with 25 percent to be paid to the District.

If the board concludes that the necessary signatures have not been gathered, supporters could file an appeal in the court system.

Mr. Ray said yesterday he “hasn’t thought about that” yet.

The board also reserved the right to assess penalties against the Citizens Committee for the Video Lottery Terminal Initiative at a later date based on the improper petition effort.

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