Convoluted casino proceedings
The Pope County Quorum Court has endorsed a proposal from Cherokee Nation Businesses of Oklahoma, in conjunction with a group whose owners include Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, to build a casino in the county. Amendment 100, approved by voters in November, authorized new casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties if applicants met certain requirements, including obtaining a letter of support from local officials. Pope County voters approved a local ordinance in November that required a local election before officials could support a casino proposal, but the Quorum Court ignored the ordinance in approving the Cherokee bid under the legal theory that it was superseded by the constitutional amendment.
Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi had obtained letters of endorsement from the lame duck Russellville mayor and Pope County judge in December, but the state Racing Commission adopted a rule earlier this year that required local endorsement to come from persons in office at the time of application; a law passed by the legislature that became effective in March said the same thing. Gulfside has filed a lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court arguing that the commission’s rule is unconstitutional because the casino amendment doesn’t specify when endorsements have to be dated.
In June, the Racing Commission rejected five applicants — Cherokee Nation Businesses, Gulfside Casino Partnership, Kehl Management of Iowa, Warner Gaming of Nevada and Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce of Oklahoma — because they lacked letters of local support. At the time, it said it would reopen the application period for 90 days if an applicant received local support. It did so Aug. 19.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit has been filed by casino foes asserting the Quorum Court action is void without a local vote first. And a special prosecutor will consider a complaint that the Quorum Court held illegal private meetings about the casino in advance of its vote to support the Cherokee proposal, 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 would indirectly benefit substantially from the likes of a jail, 911 center and ambulance service subsidy) in return for getting application approval.
Gates gets probation, agrees to repay state
State Rep. Mickey Gates (R-Hot Springs) agreed to plead no contest to felony income tax charges in Garland County Circuit Court.
Under the plea agreement, Gates will receive six years’ probation and will be obligated to pay the tax he owes to the state from 2012 to 2017; he’ll have to pay penalties and interest for 2012 through 2014. A special prosecutor said Gates had failed to file his taxes for 15 years, from 2003-2017, but the statute of limitations limited the number of charges to six years. Gates entered his plea under Act 346, also known as the First Offender Act, which allows a first-time offender, after completing the terms of probation, to petition a judge to dismiss charges and expunge the offender’s record.
Gates handily won his re-election bid in November. His attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig, said that because the Act 346 treatment is not considered a felony conviction, the plea agreement does not require him to resign. Gates said after his court appearance that he won’t step down.
Governor Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who called on Gates to resign in 2018, renewed those calls after Gates’ plea, and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said he’d had conversations with other legislators about removing Gates from the House.
President Trump has commuted the prison sentence of Ted Suhl, a former operator of a behavioral health company in Arkansas who was convicted on bribery and fraud-related charges in July 2016. The White House said Trump’s decision to commute Suhl’s sentence was influenced by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins.
During the four years covered by the federal indictment, 2007 to 2011, Suhl’s companies, which provided both residential and outpatient services, received some $125 million in Medicaid reimbursements from the state through the Arkansas Department of Human Services. Federal prosecutors said Suhl intended to help his companies by funneling money to a top administrator at DHS and former legislator, Steven Jones, by way of communicating through a middleman, West Memphis juvenile probation officer Philip Carter. Carter and Jones pleaded guilty to bribery and served sentences in federal prison. Suhl was scheduled to be released Feb. 25, 2023.
Suhl made millions in public money from operation of a residential facility once known as the Lord’s Ranch, later renamed Trinity Behavioral Health. He also operated outpatient facilities under the names Arkansas Counseling Associates and Maxus. He was a powerful political player, particularly during the administration of Huckabee, who shared Suhl’s conservative religious views and took rides on Suhl’s plane.
New Arts Center leader
Dr. Victoria Ramirez of El Paso, Texas, has been selected as the new director of the Arkansas Arts Center. The director of the El Paso Museum of Art, she holds an Ed.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University of Houston, a master’s degree in museum education and art history from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of Maryland in College Park. Todd Herman, the previous director, left the Arts Center in August 2018 for a job as president of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C. Laine Harber, the former CFO and deputy director, has served as interim director since. A groundbreaking is scheduled for Oct. 1 for the $128 million redo of the Arts Center.