Alex Lieblong, chairman of the Arkansas Racing Commission, announced today he would recuse from consideration of competing applications to win a permit to open a casino in Pope County.

The commission will meet at 9 a.m. Thursday to decide the issue. Lieblong’s recusal would appear to hep Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi.

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Lieblong released this letter:

My Fellow Commissioners:

Thank you for the time and energy you have put in to this most important and sometimes difficult task with which we have been charged. We understand that there are many opinions on the Pope County Casino, from those that live in the community in which a casino will be located, to the companies that have applied to be licensed pursuant to the constitutional amendment.

 

Recently, there have been unfounded concerns about the actions of the remaining commissioners tasked with awarding the casino license for Pope County. In my opinion these commissioners have acted honorably, professionally, and with the best interest of the citizens of Arkansas as their guidepost. The integrity of this process cannot be questioned, nor can the integrity of myself or the fairness of this process. In the interest of transparency and fostering good-faith relationships of the regulatory body and the applicants, I have welcomed communications from both parties, and have spoken with all sides when appropriate. I have treated both parties equitably and with respect. At no point during this process have I insinuated, intimated or tried to influence how any commissioner should vote on any issue.

 

While I know that I have not acted inappropriately, nor am I in any way biased toward either of the candidates, and to avoid any appearance of impropriety and remove any doubts as to the integrity of either myself or this process, I am voluntarily withdrawing my scores and recusing from any votes regarding the Pope County Casino licensing matter.

 

I am fully confident that the remaining commissioners will continue to represent the best interest of our citizens, and will do so with the dignity and honor that has been the standard of the Arkansas Racing Commission.

Oh, goodness, where to begin.

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The Racing Commission scored the competing applications by Gulfside Casino Partnership and Cherokee Nation Businesses of Oklahoma on June 18. It later develooped that a casino consultant who devised the scoring system found the Cherokees the better choice.

Gulfside won, 637-572 in cumulative scores of the seven commissioners, on the strength of a lopsided score in their favor by Butch Rice.  The Cherokee Nation complained. The Commission met again. The six other commissioners found Rice’s score so lopsided as to be biased for Gulfside. Subtract Rice’s 100-29 vote for Gulfside and the cumulative total becomes  537 to 543 for the Cherokee application.

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The final decision won’t necessarily be made on points, but subtract Lieblong’s 95-73 vote favoring the Cherokees and you’d have Gulfside ahead with the remaining five commissioners, 464-448.

HOWEVER: Scott  Hardin of the Department of Finance and Administration tells me that Rice’s score remains active because the commission never formally voted to exclude it. So does Lieblong’s for the same reason. For now, the original score holds.

At Thursday’s meeting, a motion and a vote would be required to officially eliminate any score.

But more important is the commissioners preferences. Lieblong is out. Rice has not recused from voting.

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Individually, four commissioners favored Gulfside — Rice, Denny East, Michael Post and Bo Hunter — while three favored the Cherokee application, Lieblong, Steve Landers and Mark Lamberth. That leaves it 4-2 Gulfside if all but Lieblong vote and they stick with their June 18 evaluations.

At the meeting at which Rice’s score was disallowed, it developed that Lieblong had had some discussions with casino applicants, as had Rice, all described as routine. Later, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on text exchanges between Lieblong and attorney for the Cherokees, Dustin McDaniel, about setting up meetings with the attorney general’s office to see if a way to proceed on the dispute could be mapped out. The Commission had originally determined Gulfside the winner and was preparing to follow through with a letter officially declaring that before the meeting at which Rice’s vote was excluded. Things got complicated. The matter remains up in the air along with various lawsuits.

Will the decision Thursday, if there is a final vote, settle the matter? It’s not likely.

Gulfside has long contended it was the only legal applicant, having obtained approval from local officials whose names were submitted during the original application period. That was true, but those local officials were no longer in office when the application period was held. The Cherokees have approval from the current Pope County judge and quorum court but didn’t obtain that approval until after the original application period ended. The Racing Commission determined, as a court had suggested, that it could for “good cause” accept further filings.

Oh and just so you’ll no, a group opposed to ANY casino in Pope County is among those with legal action still pending.

UPDATE: comments

“Judges and Commissioners recuse from proceedings all the time. The Chief Justice and Justice Hart both recused themselves without explanation from participating in our recent petition to vacate an order from Judge Fox. I know of no reason of any kind why the Chairman should recuse, but I respect him as a gentleman and professional if he thinks it is best to do so. Mr. Rice has been disqualified as a matter of law, but we are prepared to present our appeal to the remaining five Commissioners on Thursday. In his presentation, Mr. Green made multiple inaccurate and false statements about his experience and his proposed project with the intent to deceive the Commission. In addition, the Commission did not have the benefit of its own consulting expert’s report when they awarded points. For these reasons, they will be asked to overturn our denial, regardless of the remaining scores.” – Dustin McDaniel, legal counsel for Cherokee Nation Businesses