PROPOSED CASINO: A special prosecutor concluded that Pope County officials violated the FOIA in working on deal with Cherokee tribe.

The Cherokee tribe today again submitted an application to the state Racing Commission for a casino license in Pope County. The proposal, for a $225 million casino, hotel and water park, is being re-submitted under a different provision in the commission’s rules in an attempt to pass legal muster.

The process for a casino license, authorized by a ballot initiative approved by state voters in 2018, has been embroiled in a convoluted legal mess.

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A casino opposition group, Citizens for a Better Pope County, filed a lawsuit last month arguing that the Racing Commission had broken its own rules by allowing a second application period for a permit in Pope County.

The lawsuit argues that the rules allow a second application period only if no applications were received in the first application period. Five applications were submitted  during the first period — May 1 to June 1, 2019 — and all were rejected. None of them included endorsement by current local elected officials, as required by state Racing Commission rules.

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The commission then created a second application period, which lasted 90 days, beginning Aug. 19. In the second period, only the Cherokees submitted an application that included the necessary endorsement.

Earlier this month, Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen blocked the Racing Commission from making a decision on that application, issuing a temporary restraining order. He found that current rules do not authorize a second application period, which he noted was three times longer than the first.

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That decision led the Racing Commission to cancel the meeting it had set to consider the Cherokees’ application and then to vote to “abandon” the second period. However, Griffen yesterday declined to dismiss the restraining order, instead extending it by 30 days.

“‘Abandon’ does not mean ‘nullify,'” Griffen said in explaining his ruling, according to a D-G Report.

Griffen noted that his temporary restraining order applies to any application submitted during the second application period, but it does not prohibit the Racing Commission from accepting an application outside of the initial period “for good cause shown.” (Griffen also said that “good cause shown” was not clearly defined under the rules, but said that issue was not being adjudicated in the current lawsuit.)

The Cherokees are now re-submitting their application under the “good cause” provision.

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In a statement, Chuck Garrett, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses, explained:

Today, Cherokee Nation Businesses submitted an application to the Arkansas State Racing Commission for the casino license in Pope County, as established by Amendment 100. We have worked diligently over the past year to listen to and collaborate with local officials, business owners and residents of Pope County in an effort to develop a project that promotes positive economic growth in the region and that the community can be proud of. As a result, CNB is the sole recipient of a Resolution of Support from the Pope County Quorum Court and has entered into an Economic Development Agreement with a value exceeding $40 million; three Letters of Support from Pope County Judge Ben Cross; a Letter of Support from Dover Mayor Roger Lee; and a Resolution of Welcome from the Russellville City Council. The application submitted today adheres to the Commission’s rules – specifically Rule 2.13.4(b) – which allows for applications to be submitted for the May 2019 application period after the submission deadline “for good cause shown.” We respectfully take the position that good cause exists for our application to be accepted by the Racing Commission and have asked that they do so as quickly as possible. In addition, we have requested that another hearing date be set in the near future during which we would make our formal presentation and the Commission subsequently vote on issuance of the license. We remain confident and look forward to proceeding with our plans to bring Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas to the River Valley.

In a letter to the commission, the Cherokees argue that its application should be considered under the “good cause” provision because it was not possible to get the required endorsement of local officials, which they have now secured, by the first application period deadline.