- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

Don’t know what the D.C. slots supporters were serving up under the Red Roof Inn, but it seems mighty unsavory.

Is anyone really surprised that the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics threw out most of the slots petition signatures gathered by the Florida-based signature-gathering firm Stars and Stripes, who, according to testimony, hosted “signing parties” at the Red Roof Inn?

With only 14,587 valid signatures out of 56,044 collected by slots supporters, something is surely amiss. “Fatally flawed,” as D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Chairman Wilma A. Lewis characterized this fiasco, won’t even buy you a legitimate D.C. lottery ticket.

To begin with, the “Citizens Committee for the Video Lottery Terminal,” the front for the out-of-town investors who wanted to establish a $500 million gambling hall in Northeast, is a misnomer if you’ve ever heard one.

What citizens? The seedy offshore initiators who have been turned down in a handful of other vulnerable venues? The petition “circulators” brought in from California to “assist” D.C. residents in collecting D.C. signatures? Or the petitioners with unknown or unverifiable addresses who reportedly copied names from the D.C. phone directory?

Either way, only D.C. residents come up as big losers in this shaky slots scam as the out-of-towners slink away. Only the local yokels, like businessman Pedro Alfonso (who I’m told was the last person who agreed to lend his name to the dastardly deal), will feel the penalty pinch.

Slippery offshore investors Shawn Scott, Robert L. Newell and John K. Baldwin — all affiliated with Bridge Capital LLC of St. Croix — are free to foist their video terminal schemes on some other unsuspecting community, even after five failed gambling-related foibles.

The elections board had every right and responsibility to discount the ill-gained signatures, but it also has the duty to levy hefty fines and high penalties for those who circumvented the city’s franchise laws.

Little difference exists between the illegality of this troublesome initiative and the summer 2002 petition fiasco involving Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ bid for re-election.

As I suggested then, I’ll suggest again: This case should be investigated thoroughly by law enforcement authorities and any violators should be prosecuted to the highest letter of the law. Impose jail time to the adjudicated offenders.

The elections board must make a harsh example of this latest ballot signature case for all future elections. After watching people try to circumvent the election laws for their own personal gains twice, it’s apparent that stronger sanctions must be imposed to set an unmistakably higher standard.

The board must send a clear signal that fooling with petition signatures will not be tolerated in the nation’s capital. Set the bar so high that we dare the scoundrels to even try it.

It is not enough for Ms. Lewis to suggest that the overwhelming number of bad signatures was because of poor training and hasty collection. As a former federal prosecutor, she should know better. There were far too many examples reported and presented to suggest something more sinister.

That warrants further scrutiny.

It’s obvious that the former election board was too lenient when its members opted only to levy a fine against Mr. Williams. The mayor simply dialed for dollars and eventually paid the penalty.

Once again, unethical behavior is not a problem for folks with deep pockets.

If would-be elections violators knew there was an extended stay at the D.C. jail — or worse — for playing loosey-goosey with ballot petitions, they might not find it so easy to party hardy with phony signatures.

The election board’s rules clearly state that individual violators should be fined up to $10,000 and face up to six months’ imprisonment per offense for election code violations, and $1,000 in fines or 180 days in jail for making false statements.

According to the law, “any person who violates any provision of the elections law may be assessed a civil penalty … and each occurrence of a violation … shall constitute a separate offense.”

I don’t know how he got caught up in all this, but the mild-mannered Mr. Alfonso uncharacteristically added insult to injury when told The Times’ Matthew Cella: “We’re proud of what we did, we’re proud of the team, we’re proud of the committee.” But they were unhappy about the results. Sounds like sorry words coming from former D.C. Council member John Ray’s bitter playbook.

Wonder how proud they’ll be when the fines are finally metered.

Mr. Ray, the attorney for the slots investors, should save D.C. residents more sorrow and shame by dropping his attempt to appeal the election board’s ruling and end the possibility of the gambling initiative being placed on the November ballot.

The Court of Appeals traditionally upholds decisions by city agencies, primarily out of respect for the home rule charter.

No good was ever to come from this sneaky endeavor from its inception, when supporters falsely used children and elders and the promise of a chicken in every pot to get the most worried and weary of city residents in poor wards to sign the petitions.

That the lower court allowed this exclusive special-interest initiative to go forward in the first place is a total mystery.

Any gambling initiative for the District should be undertaken by the D.C. Council and strictly regulated by the administration.

Ward 4 D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty plans to introduce legislation banning the terminals and adding investigative staff to the board of elections.

These are helpful measures, but the council must deal with the larger issue: closing the loopholes that allow private investors to fund ballot initiatives in which they stand to gain millions of dollars at a susceptible public’s expense.

I’ll raise the roof — red or otherwise — to that much-needed measure or initiative.

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