Legal action developed on a couple of fronts today because outgoing Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson has issued a letter approving a casino in Pope County before he leaves office Dec. 31. Voters in the county have passed an ordinance requiring a vote before the county judge issues such approval and incoming county judge Ben Cross, as well as the incoming Russellville mayor, have said they don’t support a casino.
Amendment 100, approved statewide in November (though not by Pope County voters), fully legalized existing casinos at the Oaklawn and Southland racetracks and also allowed two additional casinos, in Jefferson and Pope Counties. The casino amendment said approval from either the county judge or mayor of the city in which a casino would be located (Pine Bluff or Russellville, for example) had to issue a letter of approval. Jefferson County is on board for a casino permit being sought by the Quapaw Tribe.
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No formal casino application has surfaced in Pope County, though the Cherokee Tribe, another major funder of the casino amendment with the Quapaws and Southland Gaming in West Memphis, was known to have an interest in a casino in Pope County.
Now the wrinkle, in both a lawsuit filed today in Pope County and in an attorney general opinion request from Sen. Breanne Davis of Russellville: It’s alleged that Gibson has given an indication he might issue a letter before he leaves office. By a variety of unconfirmed accounts, he’s been in private talks with a group from Mississippi. I have been unable to reach him.
UPDATE: Gibson has indeed come out in favor of a casino application by a Mississippi group.
The Cherokee Nation has taken note. It wrote Gibson saying it indeed was interested in a casino license “should the residents of Pope County decide it is worthwhile.” Given recent election results, the letter said it would “behoove” the county to consider ALL proposals “before making such an important decision.” The letter, from Shawn Slaton, the chief executive officer of the tribe, said the tribe would like to participate in an “open process” to determine “the best partner” for Pope County. He sent a copy of the letter to other county officials.
Pope County resident James Knight sued today in Pope County. He seeks a restraining order to prohibit the outgoing county judge from signing a letter. It cites the county ordinance adopted at the general election, effective Nov. 14, that prohibited issuance of such a letter without a voter referendum.
Interesting case. It is seeking an order against something that at the time, was
Also today, Sen. Davis asked Attorney General Leslie Rutledge whether the county judge could issue an approval letter without first referring the matter to voters. She also asks if his successor could rescind it. Davis noted that letters sent by judges after the effective date of the amendment, Nov. 14, were sufficient to authorize a casino permit application. Such a letter was signed after that date in Jefferson County. She asks if the state Racing Commission, which regulates casinos, could adopt a rule to require a letter by a current county judge, particularly if a letter, such as the one expected from Gibson, comes before an actual permit application has been filed. She also asks if the legislature could add more clarity about letters from local officials, or if that would run afoul of the amendment.
One casino backer I’d spoken with shortly after the election thought an immediate push for a casino in Pope County was a bad idea politically, legal issues aside, given the two votes in November expressing anti-casino sentiment. Better to do some public relations work, spend some money, build the idea of economic development and try to build a coalition. But to some, time is money.
The group that Gibson has endorsed turned up in the drive for the amendment, which spent millions — a comparatively insignificant contribution of $10,000 from Gulfside Casino Partnership LLC of Gulfport, Miss.
That LLC also contributed $50,000 to a smaller committee, along with a Las Vegas casino company, to a pro-casino group known as Jobs for Pope County.
NOTE: This post contains a number of edits since it was originally
And here’s some unverified inside baseball:
Gulfport Entertainment has a small casino in Gulfport, Miss. A couple of members of the Pope Quorum Court are said to have been bragging for months about insiders’ connection to a potential casino permit applicant. The theory is that money has played a role. Imagine. In gambling?