By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun
8:53 PM EDT, June 3, 2010
The fate of a planned billion-dollar gambling and live entertainment complex at Arundel Mills mall now rests in the hands of a judge.
After seven days of legal wrangling, the trial to determine whether a referendum on the location of the state's most lucrative slots license will go on the fall ballot in Anne Arundel County ended Thursday afternoon.
County Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth will decide whether to undertake a thorough-going examination, as requested by lawyers for a subsidiary of the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., of the 23,000 signatures accepted as valid by the county Board of Elections.
The successful petition effort, sponsored by the community group Citizens Against Slots and paid for by the Maryland Jockey Club in an effort to steer slots to the Laurel Park racetrack, garnered more than 40,000 signatures. Although the county elections board threw out about 17,000 signatures — 43 percent — for various reasons, the board certified the petition after approving about 23,000 signatures, more than the 19,000 required for a referendum.
Even if the judge agrees to conduct the examination, which lawyers for the elections board say is unnecessary because it followed all applicable laws and procedures, the judge would have to toss out more than 4,000 of the 23,000 approved signatures to invalidate the referendum.
Lawyers for PPE Casino Resorts Maryland LLC, a Cordish subsidiary, contended that 9,406 of the signatures should be invalidated because of alleged improprieties, fraud and forgery, ranging from the omission of a signer's election district to the appearance that one person signed multiple times. They said the county election board ignored fraud and was inconsistent in applying the law and board standards.
Michael Berman, an attorney for the community group, said the board used "evenhanded, reasonable decision-making" and that further examination of the carefully completed process would "disenfranchise voters based on wholly subjective guesswork."
Lawyers have until next Friday to submit 35-page case summaries to the court. Whatever the judge decides — a ruling could take weeks to be issued — the decision likely will be appealed to the state's highest court.
Both sides have much at stake. The Cordish firm paid a $28.5 million deposit to the state for its slots license and underwent almost a year of examination by county and state officials before getting the green light to build a 4,750-machine slots casino in what is now a part of the mall's parking lot.
The Maryland Jockey Club, whose bankrupt parent company, Magna Entertainment Corp., bid on a slots license but failed to pay the deposit, still has its eye on slots, viewing it as a potential savior for the state's struggling horse industry.
While Cordish officials note that voters approved slots in a statewide referendum in 2008, many slots opponents in Anne Arundel say they thought the slots parlor would be located at the racetrack. Residents near the mall are particularly upset, saying that a slots facility there would bring crime and traffic to their neighborhood.
Cordish hired a prestigious Washington law firm as its counsel after filing suit against the county Board of Elections in February, while the Jockey Club enlisted experts on elections law to argue the case, because it was handled as a judicial review of an administrative agency, limiting the amount of outside evidence that could be considered.
The judge ruled that the petition would be the only evidence allowed at trial, denying the Cordish Cos.' attempt to present testimony from county voters who said they were duped by signature collectors into signing. Cordish attorneys said they had 100 affidavits from voters making the allegation, which was vehemently denied by officials at FieldWorks, the Washington-based company hired to collect signatures.
The judge's ruling also precluded the court from hearing evidence of an allegation that a company affiliated with the Cordish Cos. hired a woman to disrupt the petition drive.
In detailed summaries to the court, Cordish attorney Stephen P. Anthony contended that the petition should be invalidated because the county elections board failed to follow its policies and procedures.
Opposing lawyers said the Cordish analysis of the signatures was "standardless, biased and subjective." The lawyers argued that the court's role in a judicial review is to examine the board's actions, which they said consisted of a line-by-line review and cross-checking of names with voter registration records.
Instead, they said, Cordish lawyers "invented new procedures and handwriting requirements" for petitions.
Bruce Marcus, an attorney for the coalition, attacked Cordish's allegations that signatures were forged or fraudulent.
Marcus pointed to several instances in which petition signers wrote "G.B." after a street address and included a ZIP code corresponding to Glen Burnie — signatures that Cordish attorneys argued should be invalidated for failing to follow elections law, which they said requires signers to write out their complete addresses.
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