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In a small storefront office tucked between a beauty salon and a plumbing-fixtures store in Southeast Washington, three community activists huddle around a table to discuss legal strategy for their fast-approaching oral argument before the D.C. Court of Appeals. Despite the looming deadline, there isn’t a lawyer in the room. On Sept. 21 a three-judge panel is scheduled to hear the plaintiffs’ expedited appeal, which challenges the legality of the latest casino ballot initiative funded by gambling financier Shawn Scott of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Under a proposed initiative very similar to a failed 2004 effort, Scott wants to build a casino filled with thousands of slot machines in historic Anacostia, one of the District’s poorest neighborhoods, where street crime and outbursts of violence blur together with numbing regularity. In the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission office, located a few blocks from the proposed site of the casino, Dorothy Brizill, executive director of government watchdog group D.C. Watch, looks across the table at Thelma Jones, a 79-year-old retiree, and Anthony Muhammad, the neighborhood commission chairman, and asks who wants to argue the case before the Court of Appeals, the District’s version of a state supreme court. No one raises a hand, so Brizill most likely will argue the case herself, because the trio of plaintiffs still haven’t found an attorney willing to take the case pro bono. Brizill has been researching relevant cases and D.C. statutes at the Library of Congress and has written all of the plaintiffs’ briefs even though she is not an attorney. “We all went out there and beat the bush; we weren’t successful,” Brizill says. “After spending so much time trying to find legal counsel, we just decided to try it ourselves. The good thing about all of us is, we don’t care if we fall flat on our faces; but it was something we had to do.” Even though the group has already lost its case before the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics (BOEE) and in D.C. Superior Court, Brizill hopes the Court of Appeals will rule differently. She has little money and no lawyer, yet she has a history of beating the odds. In 2004, Brizill led a community effort that derailed Scott’s first casino ballot initiative, which ended with a record-setting $622,880 fine from the BOEE against the local initiative committee for more than 3,800 petition-signature violations. Scott and his associates spent more than $2 million financing the 2004 initiative yet had little to show for it. Scott, who has financed gambling ventures or casino initiatives with limited success in Maine, New York, and Idaho, is backing the new D.C. initiative committee, the Citizens for the VLT Initiative of 2006, which has moved the proposed casino site from Northeast Washington to Anacostia. “They don’t take no the first time. They keep on coming back,” Brizill says. “They weren’t supposed to lose. They especially weren’t supposed to lose to a bunch of nonlawyers.” Though Brizill is used to challenging powerful interests, she now believes she is being personally targeted. Brizill says she spoke recently with the FBI about a stalking complaint she made to the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, which the MPD later forwarded to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Brizill says five men staked out her home and followed her for several days in July, when she was investigating the petition-circulation activities of the current casino initiative committee. Jeffrey Robinson, an attorney who is representing Citizens for the VLT Initiative, says he is “not aware of anybody harassing Ms. Brizill.” After conducting a radio interview in Guam last month about the D.C. casino initiatives, Brizill was sued two days later in the Superior Court of Guam in a defamation suit by John Baldwin, one of Scott’s associates who is backing a similar ballot initiative to approve slot machines at his Guam greyhound racetrack. Brizill believes the lawsuit was designed to discourage public debate and distract her from the case before the D.C. Court of Appeals. “I think this is an extension of their efforts to intimidate us,” she says. “Now, in addition to trying to find an attorney in D.C., I’m trying to find an attorney in Guam.” Brizill’s case, which may determine the future of casino gambling in the nation’s capital, also raises questions about the extent to which voter initiatives can require an appropriation of funds from the D.C. government. After the bad publicity surrounding the failed 2004 casino initiative, Brizill was surprised when Citizens for the VLT Initiative of 2006 filed in March with the BOEE, with the hope of getting its similar initiative on the 2006 general ballot. If approved by D.C. voters, the ballot initiative would require the D.C. Lottery and Charitable Games Board to approve a temporary initial license, with no background check of the licensee, for a slot-machine casino on specific parcels located near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road in Anacostia. Those parcels are owned by Relco Corp. of Henderson, Nev., which has agreed to lease part of a proposed entertainment facility for the casino if the initiative is approved. The initiative would approve “video lottery terminals,” which are very similar to slot machines except that players play against one another rather than the house. The initiative would allow the licensing of additional casinos and recommends that the D.C. government charge a usage fee of 25 percent of net proceeds against each casino operator. Brizill met Jones and Muhammad when she informed community leaders in Anacostia about the proposed site of the first casino. The block is now home to a construction company, vacant shops with barred windows, and a row of burned-out buildings covered with plywood, which has been tagged with no to slots in bright-green paint. Across the intersection, a backhoe claws fresh dirt at the edge of a 30-foot hole for the foundation of the $20 million Anacostia Gateway project, a public-private venture backed by the Anacostia Economic Development Corp. The retail and office complex is the cornerstone of the District’s redevelopment plans for Anacostia, where a patchwork of small businesses and vacant storefronts line nearby streets. Jones, who wears glasses and leans on a cane when she walks, has served as president of the local Fairlawn Citizens Association since 1994 and has lived in Southeast for 33 years. A retired bookbinder with the federal government, Jones says a passing car dumped a man’s bullet-riddled body on her street last year, and a friend found used condoms on her porch. She fears a casino will hamper the long-awaited redevelopment efforts. “We’re basically in an impoverished area,” she says. “We have enough crime over here. This [casino] would only add to the crime and prostitution in the area. We need something that is going to try to uplift our community, not bring it down.” WATCHDOG WITH A BITE In 2002, D.C. Watch challenged petition-signature violations by Mayor Anthony Williams’ re-election petition drive, which led the BOEE to drop his name from the Democratic primary ballot and fine his campaign $277,000. Williams won the primary as a write-in candidate. In July, Brizill and other community activists prepared to challenge petition signatures supporting the 2006 casino ballot initiative, claiming there had been more violations of D.C. election laws. But Citizens for the VLT Initiative ducked the fight by not turning in its petition signatures to the BOEE and delaying the initiative until the 2008 general election. The committee now has until Dec. 11 to collect almost 19,000 valid signatures from D.C. residents, representing 5 percent of D.C. voters in at least five of the eight districts. Robinson says the committee had collected more than 20,000 valid signatures in July but continues to collect more signatures to avoid a lengthy petition challenge. He says the project will enhance development in Anacostia and attract tourists to the area. “We’ve taken a lot of steps to make sure that we have plenty, plenty of valid signatures, and there won’t be any problems,” he says. “[Gambling opponents] want to throw up every roadblock possible to keep people in D.C. from deciding themselves.” The casino initiative is opposed by Williams, the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., several D.C. Council members, and some Anacostia community groups. Muhammad, a security guard and lifelong D.C. resident, says the proposed casino “would be a weapon of mass destruction put in a community that is already in bad shape.” “It’s the usual: Pimp the poor. It’s a worldwide epidemic,” he says. “Use the poor; they’re ignorant.” COMMITTEE OF ONE On the other side of the issue, the Citizens for the VLT Initiative is a committee composed of one D.C. resident. Barry Jerrels, who works for an inventory-management firm called Symbology Enterprises, told Legal Times he agreed to serve as the committee’s chairman and treasurer after being contacted by Robinson. Jerrels said he believes the 2006 initiative is being funded by Scott through Atlantic Northstar, one of the Virgin Islands companies owned or operated by Scott and Baldwin. Atlantic Northstar also is paying D.C. attorney George Jones Jr. to contest the $622,880 fine against the 2004 casino initiative committee in D.C. Superior Court, even though neither Scott nor any other financial backer of the committee has been held liable for the fine. If the fine is upheld, the 2004 committee “will have to figure out if they can get the money from Atlantic Northstar or somebody else,” Jones says. Scott couldn’t be reached for comment at his office for Bridge Capital (USVI) LLC in Frederiksted, Virgin Islands. Brizill filed suit against the BOEE in May, after the agency ruled the casino initiative was the proper subject of a ballot initiative. Citizens for the VLT Initiative intervened as defendants. In her appeal, Brizill raises three issues challenging the legality of the current casino ballot initiative. She argues that the initiative attempts to amend or overturn a federal law, namely the Johnson Act, and thus conflicts with both the Constitution and the D.C. Home Rule Act. The Johnson Act prohibits the manufacture, sale, transport, or use of gambling devices in the District. Brizill also contends the initiative intrudes upon mayoral authority to grant licenses and is a “law appropriating funds,” which is prohibited under the District’s voter-initiative law. In a May 3 letter to the BOEE, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which oversees the lottery board, stated the initiative would impose additional, as yet undefined, regulatory costs on the lottery board and requested the BOEE consider whether those costs would prohibit the initiative as a “law appropriating funds.” In its appeal brief, the BOEE argued that Brizill would “impose unintended limits upon the initiative right.” D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Retchin rejected all of Brizill’s arguments in her June 8 order, which dismissed the suit and prompted the appeal. Retchin ruled the Johnson Act’s prohibition on gambling devices in the District is “tantamount to a local law and thus amending it would not violate the Home Rule Act.” Retchin found that any minimal expenses for the lottery board in licensing the Anacostia casino “should not trump the power of the initiative.” Finally, she ruled the initiative is predominantly legislative in nature and does not usurp the mayor’s authority. Brizill says she was “shocked, surprised, dismayed, and upset” that Retchin didn’t allow a hearing in the case, ruling instead from the briefs. Though Brizill says she isn’t looking forward to the oral arguments before the Court of Appeals, it is clear she relishes the fight. “We will have an opportunity to make our case, the case that both the Superior Court and the Board of Elections would not allow us to make,” she says.
Brendan Smith can be contacted at [email protected].

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