Lawyers for developers of what would be the state's most lucrative slots parlor said Monday that more than one in three ballot signatures seeking to block the project should be thrown out because of "widespread violations" and "systematic fraud."
An attorney representing PPE Casino Resorts Maryland, LLC, a subsidiary of Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., claimed that 9,406 of nearly 23,000 signatures approved by the Anne Arundel County elections board are invalid. Removing them would be enough to extinguish the referendum effort, which aims to end Cordish's billion-dollar slots project at the popular Arundel Mills shopping mall, with hopes of steering a similar facility to Laurel Park race course.
Attorney Stephen P. Anthony claimed 4,316 of the accepted signatures were forged, and 1,203 don't match the printed name to which they are supposed to correspond.
Lawyers for the election board and the coalition that organized the petition denied those claims, saying that the county election board followed the law carefully when examining the signatures, invalidating about 43 percent of the roughly 40,000 names submitted.
The allegations were made during the first day of a high-stakes trial that will help determine whether Arundel voters will get a chance to decide on a zoning law approved by the county council late last year allowing slots at the mall.
A judge has said he had been planning a more limited review of the referendum issue; it was unclear Monday whether he would agree to tackle a detailed examination of the signatures.
Cordish surprised many in the county when he won the Arundel slots license — one of five in the state — and proposed building a casino at the mall. Many residents thought the Laurel track would be the home for slots, and many residential neighbors of the mall grew angry.
The petition drive to overturn the necessary zoning was organized by the Maryland Jockey Club, which financed the effort, along with Citizens Against Slots at the Mall, a community group. FieldWorks, a Chicago-based company was hired to collect signatures.
Lawyers for Cordish suggested that petition organizers should have checked the identification of everyone signing the petition.
Michael D. Berman, an attorney representing Citizens Against Slots, said the suggestion of checking identification of petitioner was "a modern day poll tax."
Berman tried to block evidence of invalid signatures from being considered, saying he had not had time to examine it. "This is trial by ambush," he said. "This is wrong."
Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth has not yet ruled on the matter.
The legal battle began when the Cordish Cos. group sued the election board in February, claiming it had failed to recognized "massive fraud" in the petition drive. The election board certified nearly 23,000 signatures; about 19,000 are needed.
The developer's lawyers raised other claims.
Lawyer Anthony Herman said the petition should be struck because the sponsor was identified as Citizens Against Slots, not the Jockey Club, which has provided more than a half-million dollars for the effort.
Herman also challenged the notion that the zoning bill allowing slots at the mall, which was approved by the county council after nearly 10 months of contentious debate, is not subject to referendum because it is "part of an appropriations package…because the bill is designed to raise money for schools."
Alan B. Rifkin, an attorney for the anti-slots coalition, denied that assertion.
"Not a dime or a dollar is appropriated," said Rifkin. "It's a land use bill, not appropriations."
Lawyers for the Cordish group are scheduled to continue presenting their case Tuesday.