- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

An initiative proposing a $500 million gambling hall in Northeast will not go before D.C. voters in November because supporters failed to gather enough legal signatures, the Board of Elections and Ethics ruled yesterday.

Board members Wilma A. Lewis, Charles Lowery and Lenora Cole voted to reject the Video Lottery Terminal Initiative of 2004 after the board’s executive director, Alice P. Miller, reported that only 14,687 signatures were obtained legally from registered D.C. voters. The city required 17,599.

Supporters submitted 56,044 signatures after a petition drive staged July 1-6. But Mrs. Lewis said a significant part of the signature-gathering process was “fatally flawed.”

“The flaws were significant when considered individually, and they were monumental when considered collectively,” she said after releasing the report. “They served to turn the law of the District of Columbia, designed to ensure the integrity of the circulation process, on its head.”

Mrs. Lewis said the board concluded that the Citizens Committee for the Video Lottery Terminal used of out-of-town circulators to collect signatures instead of simply assisting D.C. collectors, employed circulators who forged signatures, misrepresented the substance of the initiative to signers, and failed to exercise oversight of circulators.

The decision, which slots supporters vowed to submit to the D.C. Court of Appeals as soon as today, all but killed the campaign by two offshore investment firms to bring slot-machine-style gambling to the District.

“The board made their decision. Along the way, we had some battles. They won some, we won some. The game is still in play, so we’ll wait and see what the final play is,” said lawyer John Ray, a former D.C. Council member who argued in support of the initiative during a 10-day hearing challenging the legality of the signature-gathering process.

Pedro Alfonso, president and chief executive officer of the District-based telecommunications firm Dynamic Concepts and head of the committee supporting the slots initiative, said he would like to have had more time to collect the signatures, but had no regrets about the way the drive was handled.

“We’re proud of what we did,” Mr. Alfonso said. “We’re proud of the team, of the committee. And we’re obviously disappointed in the current results.”

The ruling was a victory for two groups that challenged the petition drive.

“We’re just really pleased that enough evidence was provided on the record, enough testimony, so that the board saw the world that we saw during that five-day period of time” during the petition drive, said Dorothy Brizill. She filed one of the challenges on behalf of her government watchdog group, DCWatch, and the group D.C. Against Slots.

“I’m just glad that the people who did wrong, who violated our election law, will not benefit from their wrongdoing.”

D.C. Against Slots was represented by Regina James, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 5. The other challenge was filed by D.C. lawyer Ron Drake. Both challenges were heard together.

The pivotal factor in refusing the slots initiative was the board’s Tuesday decision to reject all the petitions collected by the Florida-based signature-gathering firm Stars and Stripes USA, holding the firm responsible for the bulk of the election-law violations.

If the signatures collected by the firm had been included, proponents would have had 21,279 valid signatures — enough for the measure to be placed on the ballot.

With the signatures removed, proponents not only failed to meet the required number of signatures but also failed to meet a requirement that they collect signatures from 5 percent of registered voters in five different wards of the city. They collected the required signatures only in Wards 4, 5 and 8.

According to the ward-distribution breakdown, proponents collected the most signatures — 3,124 — from residents in Ward 5, where the gambling hall and its 3,500 video-lottery terminals were to be located. They collected the fewest signatures from the upper Northwest residents of Ward 3, with just 399.

Mr. Ray said he would file a notice of appeal today, but he would have to view the board’s written decision before he decided on what grounds to file his appeal.

He disputed the board’s ruling that Stars and Stripes instructed circulators to misrepresent the initiative by telling signers that it would help fund education and provide prescription-drug benefits to the elderly.

Before the petitions were distributed, a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered language to that effect stricken from the short title and summary of the petitions. However, he argued that a nonbinding suggestion that the District’s portion of funds collected from the machines be channeled toward those areas remain in the complete 26-page version of the initiative.

If the appeals court rules in favor of slots proponents, the initiative still could appear on the ballot.

However, based on precedent, it is unlikely the court would overturn the election board’s ruling.

In 2002, after the board forced Mayor Anthony A. Williams off the Democratic Party primary ballot because of widespread forgery in his re-election committee’s petition drive, the appeals court rejected his arguments that the board had exceeded its authority, and gave wide latitude to the board in resolving matters under its jurisdiction.

“Insofar as the board’s legal conclusions are concerned, we must defer to its interpretation of the statute which it administers … so long as that interpretation is not plainly wrong or inconsistent with the legislative purpose,” the opinion said.

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