Arundel casino foes say petition drive disrupted

Posted: 8:03 pm Wed, May 19, 2010
By Liz Farmer
Daily Record Business Writer

Opponents of Baltimore developer David Cordish’s proposed slots casino at Arundel Mills mall claim they’ve found a connection between The Cordish Cos. and the people who they say disrupted their petition signature-gathering efforts this winter.

In an affidavit filed in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, a private investigator said a company affiliated with Cordish Cos. hired a woman to disrupt opponents’ eventually successful petition drive to put the casino’s slots zoning up to a county-wide vote this fall.

An attorney for Cordish said his client denies the allegations.

The affidavit was filed last Friday by the Annapolis law firm Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver LLC, which represents opponents of the casino including the citizens group Stop Slots at Arundel Mills and the Maryland Jockey Club. The latter operates Laurel and Pimlico race tracks.

The jockey club has said it believes the casino would put Laurel Park, located 13 miles south of Arundel Mills mall, out of business.

The affidavit is part of the response to a lawsuit filed this winter by Cordish subsidiary PPE Casino Resorts Maryland against the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections. It contends that the process by which the board verified the petition signatures was inadequate.

According to Robert H. Pearre Jr., a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent hired this spring by the Rifkin law firm, Nikki Thornhill, a Glen Burnie woman, told him in an interview she was “recruited … to engage in activities to ‘disrupt’ the signature-gathering effort” by the Cordish casino opponents.

Rob Annicelli, president of Stop Slots, said in an e-mail statement that the disruptions entailed groups of two to five people who tried to dissuade potential signers by “encircling petition gatherers, blocking access to potential signers, circulating counter-petitions and trying to confuse people with the purpose of the petition.”

During the interview with Pearre, Thornhill produced a pay stub showing a payment from Sereflex Group LLC in the amount of $399 for one week’s work, according to the affidavit. According to its website, Sereflex Group is a subsidiary of The Cordish Cos. and Sereflex is a patented technology for use in military, industrial and consumer products. Cordish partners Joseph Weinberg and Jonathan Cordish are listed as its executive officers.

Pearre, who was director for the surveys and investigations staff of the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations before he began working for Greystone Advisory Group LLC, said he identified two other people also employed by Sereflex Group to disrupt the petition effort. Greystone is a Washington-based investigations and consulting firm.

In his affidavit, Pearre said he believes the evidence shows Sereflex Group employed people to “intentionally and willfully” interfere with the petition process.

Weinberg and Jonathan Cordish referred requests for comment to their attorney.

PPE Casino Resorts’ attorney, Anthony Herman of Washington-based Covington & Burling LLP, said Wednesday that he knew Thornhill had worked for Sereflex. While he did not know the extent of her employment, he said his client disputes the claim she was hired to disrupt the petition drive.

“That simply is untrue,” he said. “In fact I know it’s untrue.”

When asked how he knew, he said “I simply know,” adding the issue was not relevant to the case or to determining “whether the petition is supported by valid signatures.”

Pearre’s affidavit also says that Thornhill worked roughly one week for Chicago-based Fieldworks Inc., a firm the jockey club hired to help collect signatures. The Daily Record reported last month that the jockey club spent nearly $660,000, most of which went to FieldWorks, in funding the signature gathering-process.

Thornhill’s purpose with FieldWorks, which Pearre said likely overlapped her time with Sereflex, is disputed. According to a motion by PPE Casino Resorts, a handwriting expert identified the signatures turned in by Thornhill while employed by FieldWorks as invalid.

“That supports our allegations that there was a massive fraud committed by the Maryland Jockey Club and the folks it hired to conduct their campaign,” Herman said.

But the other side sees it differently, saying in a court filing accompanying the affidavit  that Thornhill was essentially acting as a mole, questioning the timing of her hiring by Sereflex, “what she was told, what she did and why.”

Alan Rifkin, attorney for the casino opponents, declined to comment beyond the court record.

Since her interview with Pearre, Thornhill has asserted her Fifth Amendment rights in response to a subpoena by Rifkin’s firm. Thornhill’s attorney declined to comment on her behalf.

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