- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 18, 2004

Opponents of an offshore firm’s plan to bring a gambling palace to New York Avenue NE are expected today to challenge petitions supporting the project, arguing that paid circulators willfully broke election laws when collecting tens of thousands of signatures.

“We have abundant evidence that there’s a violation,” said Dorothy Brizill, who runs the government watchdog group DCWatch and is spearheading the challenge.

Mrs. Brizill said she has videotaped, audiotaped and e-mail evidence that Progressive Campaigns Inc., the Santa Monica, Calif., firm that was paid $60,000 to manage the petition-collection drive, used circulators from outside the District.

Petition circulators are required by law to be D.C. residents. They must provide their address on an affidavit at the bottom of each petition sheet and sign the petition, attesting that they personally circulated the petitions. Violators can be prosecuted and face up to a year in prison or a $10,000 fine.

“Most of the evidence we have goes to the actions of the circulators. The bulk of this complaint will be the affidavits.”

Mrs. Brizill also said she has witnesses who are willing to testify that circulators misrepresented the initiative by claiming that it was a measure to provide jobs, health care or a recreation center.

The review of more than 50,000 petition signatures submitted for a Nov. 2 referendum is independent of a D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics review. The elections board took possession of the petitions on July 6 and has until Aug. 5 to ensure that the signatures are those of registered D.C. voters.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to identify which signatures should be disqualified because petitioners misrepresented the measure. But Mrs. Brizill hopes to prove that, instead of a few rogue petition circulators, there was a systematic, coordinated effort to bypass election laws to get the required 17,599 signatures and that the effort casts doubt on the legitimacy of any signatures.

“I would say our chances are extremely good, based on the precedent cited by the board in the 2002 Anthony Williams case,” Mrs. Brizill said.

In 2002, Mrs. Brizill challenged the authenticity of more than 10,000 signatures on nominating petitions submitted by Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ re-election campaign.

The elections board determined that more than half of the signatures submitted were “obvious forgeries” and forced Mr. Williams to start a write-in campaign for the Democratic Party nomination.

Mr. Williams won the election, but his campaign was fined $277,500.

Mrs. Brizill’s group includes Gary Imhoff, her husband and colleague in DCWatch; Regina James, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 5, where the proposed casino would be built; and a handful of volunteers.

The group has been holed up in the basement of the Foundry United Methodist Church in Northwest since the July 9 start of a 10-day period mandated by the elections board when citizens can review and challenge petitions.

Using the petitions obtained from the elections board, the group created a database of the top 40 circulators and have been calling or visiting the circulators to verify their involvement.

There appear to be no “smoking guns” in this case, as with the forged signatures of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, musician Billy Joel and the late actor Dudley Moore, which turned up on Mr. Williams’ petitions. But the group can cite examples.

“Some of the [circulators’] addresses are office buildings; some are institutional buildings. Some do not exist,” Mr. Imhoff said.

Willa Kynard, 61, of Southeast, who has been trying to locate circulators, said she interviewed a man whose name appears as the circulator of about 30 petitions. The address the man gave was that of a group home for the mentally disabled in Southeast.

“I don’t think he could have explained the initiative or gathered signatures from that many people,” Mrs. Kynard said.

The group also found circulators who told them their signatures appeared on far more petitions than they collected and others who acknowledged copying names out of the phone book.

Mrs. Brizill said there was no way her group could verify the 50,000 signatures that the circulators collected in the 10-day period, but she said members took a sample of the sheets and checked the 20 names on each page against the city’s voter rolls. Only registered voters are eligible to sign the petitions.

While visiting the group last week, Mrs. Brizill gathered a handful of petitions, all with red-coded notations in the margins that represent whether the signer was a registered voter, whether the address given was legitimate or whether there was cause to believe the signature was a forgery.

Of the approximately 20 sheets she showed to a Washington Times reporter, an average of about half of the signatures on each page had a red notation next to it. Some sheets have what Mrs. Brizill thinks are only three or four valid signatures.

“What we’ve also done is to show how pervasive the problem is with the signatures,” she said.

In the District, supporters of initiatives have 180 days to circulate petitions for ballot questions, but supporters of the gambling initiative got a late start, proposing the idea in April and working to get the measure on the ballot in November.

The Video Lottery Terminal Initiative of 2004 calls for establishing 3,500 slotslike devices in a $500 million gambling facility on a 14-acre triangle of property bounded by New York and Montana avenues and Bladensburg Road in Northeast. The casino is expected to generate $765 million annually.

The initiative was proposed by a citizens’ committee funded entirely by two St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands-based venture-capital firms, according to campaign-finance reports filed last week. So far, the firms have spent more than $600,000 on lobbying efforts.

One of the firms, North Atlantic Investments LLC, is headed by Robert L. Newell and was incorporated in Delaware on April 21, the day before the initiative was submitted to the elections board. The other firm, Bridge Capital LLC, shares a St. Croix address with North Atlantic Investments and employs Mr. Newell as its chief operating officer.

Bridge Capital is owned by John K. Baldwin, a St. Croix businessman whose financial ties with casino financier Shawn A. Scott prompted investigations by gambling regulators in Maine and New York last year.

Mr. Scott originally proposed the idea of bringing the casino to the District.

Pedro Alfonso, head of the D.C.-based telecommunications firm Dynamic Concepts Inc., is the only local investor identified. Mr. Alfonso has invested nothing in the drive to put the initiative on the ballot, according to the campaign-finance reports, but he has been paid $18,000 by the offshore firms to serve as a consultant to the citizens’ committee.

The committee has paid more than $187,000 to the law firm of Manatt, Phelps and Phillips LLP, which employs lawyer and former D.C. Council member John Ray, who has served as the chief lobbyist for the project.

Mr. Ray did not return phone calls seeking comment last week.

Even with all the evidence that her group has compiled, Mrs. Brizill said she can’t predict what the board will decide.

“I’m at the point where you do the best you can, but I have no confidence anything will happen,” she said. “If the board decides it’s not enough, if the board decides to disregard it, then there’s nothing we can do.”

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