UPDATE: The state Racing Commission today moved forward on considering a new application for a permit to operate a casino in Pope County, but legal complications lie ahead including a new lawsuit today.
Also: Add a non-denial denial to a question arising in the ongoing consideration of a casino in Pope County.
Tuesday, the Pope County Quorum Court voted 8-4 to endorse a casino plan proposed by the Cherokee tribe in partnership with a hospitality company whose owners include Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones.
Among the supporters of the Cherokee bid was Justice of the Peace Caleb Moore, who is in the real estate business. I sent him an e-mail yesterday asking if he or a related entity had been involved in land acquisition for the Cherokee casino, planned for 135 acres north of Interstate 40 near Russellville.
I received this letter in response:
Tony Moore didn’t respond to a followup question.
The state Racing Commission today is expected to deny an appeal by a Mississippi casino operator of the earlier denial of its application for a casino permit in Pope County. It is then expected to go to court to assert that its approval by lame-duck local officials last year satisfied the constitutional amendment’s requirement of local approval for casinos in Pope County and Jefferson County. The Racing Commission has adopted rules requiring permit applications to be approved by current elected officials. It is expected to reopen the permit process today for Pope County in light of the Quorum Court approval of the resolution favoring the Cherokee proposal among five competing bids.
A lawsuit has been filed by casino foes asserting the Quorum Court action is void without a local vote first, as required in a county ordinance approved last November. The Quorum Court ignored the ordinance in approving the Cherokee bid under the legal theory that the ordinance was superseded by the constitutional amendment. The local prosecutor is also considering a complaint that the Quorum Court held illegal private meetings about the casino in advance of Tuesday’s vote, which included no discussion of the merits of the competing proposals. The Cherokee tribe has promised almost $40 million in payments to local governments (not including the city of Russellville, though it will indirectly benefit substantially from the likes of a jail, 911 center and ambulance service subsidy) in return for getting application approval.
ADDED THOUGHT: If the Mississippi appeal is denied as expected they might go quickly to court to stop a new permit process favoring the Cherokees until their case is decided.
UPDATE: The Racing Commission meeting proceeded as expected. The Gulfside Casino Partnership appeal was denied. The Commission said it would give the public a 90-day notice of a new application period for permits for a Pope County casino. The Cherokee tribe wanted a 10-day notice, which was rejected. Indications were that the 90-day period would begin Sunday.
Casey Castleberry, attorney for Gulfside, argued a technical point: that the commission rules don’t currently allow a reopening of a permit process unless no applications had been received originally. But five were received and all were rejected for lack of support of current local officeholders. He contends the agency must promulgate new rules to reopen the process.
Pope County Judge Ben Cross read a statement in support of the Cherokees and said the Quorum Court wouldn’t consider other applications because it was satisfied with the Cherokee proposal. He indicated he was reading a statement from the Quorum Court. Really? When did they meet and draft that statement and give it to the county judge? No such business occurred at Tuesday’s meeting. At the end of the meeting, Cross asked to clarify that his statement represented what he believed to be the feelings of the Quorum Court, but was not a statement they’d issued.
Castleberry’s appearance today mainly seemed aimed at establishing that his client’s administrative appeal had concluded, making court the next option. Indeed, the group issued this statement:
Casey Castleberry, attorney for Gulfside Casino Partnership, released the following statement about the Arkansas Racing Commission meeting on August 15:
Gulfside is the only Pope County applicant that timely complied with every requirement of Amendment 100. We are disappointed by the Racing Commission’s decision, but believe we have a strong case to appeal its denial during the judicial process. When we receive the license, we look forward to building our first-class resort and fulfilling our commitment to be a strong partner to the River Valley.
A spokesman for Gulfside told me subsequently that the lawsuit has already been filed. Here’s a copy of the suit, filed in Pulaski Circuit Court. In brief, it says a Racing Commission rule and state law adopted in 2019, requiring casino applications to include support of current officeholders were unconstitutional additions to the plain language of the amendment. It says Gulfside’s initial application was sufficient to meet the terms.
Hans Stiritz, a leader in casino opposition, told the Racing Commission about his group’s objection to a lack of public meetings on the Cherokee proposal, lack of consideration of the local referendum ordinance and illegal meetings by Quorum Court members. He said these matters should be resolved before the commission moved forward on the Cherokee application. The commission chair said the 90-day period should help cover those questions.