PROPOSED CASINO: The Legends casino proposal is the current favorite in Pope County. But legal challlenges are coming.

The legal contests have begun of the surreptitiously reached deal by Pope County Judge Ben Cross and a majority of the Pope County Quorum Court to favor the Cherokee tribe over four competitors to build a casino in Pope County.

As expected, the fix was in. A pre-baked decision to favor the Cherokees was approved last night with little discussion on the multiple proposals and came, also expected, with a Cherokee promise of more than $38 million in payments to various governments in the county (but not the city of Russellville). The money starts flowing only after the deal is fully authorized. That could take a while.

It first must pass muster with the state Racing Commission, overseer of gambling in the state.

But it also faces at least one lawsuit and another may be yet to come.

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The Citizens for a Better Pope County filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking a declaratory judgment that a local ordinance approved by voters in November 2018 requires a vote before the county judge may issue a letter of support for a casino or the Quorum Court may vote on a resolution of support, as it did last night.

That ordinance was mentioned but not directly addressed at the meeting last night. It was, in short, ignored. There had been some expectation that the Quorum Court might override the voter referendum ordinance. But that would have taken a two-thirds vote, or nine of the 13 JPs. The resolution of endorsement passed 8-4, with one abstention.

Here’s the lawsuit by taxpayer James Knight. The lawsuit, against the county judge and Quorum Court, anticipated last night’s action and said a vote for a resolution was void under the local ordinance. The county judge and others have argued that the local ordinance is not allowed by the procedures set out in the constitutional amendment that opened the door to casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties.

Travis Story of Fayetteville, law partner of Sen. Bob Ballinger and a player in battles including opposition to civil rights for LGBT people and in defense of Ecclesia College in receipt of ill-gotten public money, is lead attorney in the suit. It will take a while to resolve, first in circuit court and then before the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The possibility of another lawsuit exists from the Mississippi casino operators who’ve pitched a plan for a casino in Pope County. They contend they satisfied the constitutional amendment requirements by producing letters of support from the men who were Pope County judge and Russellville mayor in 2018. They left office at the end of the year, before the casino application process began and before the Racing Commission and legislature adopted measures that specified letters of approval must come from current officeholders.

Terry Green, co-owner of Gulfside Casino Partnership, issued this statement last night in response to the Quorum Court vote.
“We stand behind our application to the Arkansas Racing Commission. Gulfside has been— and continues to be— committed to building a first-class resort. When we receive a license, we will fulfill our vow to bring good-paying jobs, economic development and philanthropic dollars to the community.”

That statement includes no specific threat of a lawsuit, but the implication is that Gulfside won’t be going away in the face of local support for the Cherokee proposal.

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Also pending is a complaint filed with the local prosecutor that members of the Quorum Court had met privately without proper public notice with representatives of the Cherokee tribe to work out the deal approved with virtually no discussion last night. That complaint contends the public officials violated the state Freedom of Information Act.