Commission accepts Cherokees' application for Pope County casino license

Thursday 7th May 2020

The Arkansas Racing Commission -- in a 6-to-1 vote -- on Thursday once again accepted an application on a "good cause" basis from Cherokee Nation Businesses for a Pope County casino license.

The state commission also approved a recommendation to place a points value on criteria used in scoring the applications submitted by the Cherokees and Gulfside Casino Partnership. That vote was unanimous.

The meeting was called earlier this week after John Tull, an attorney and Freedom of Information Act expert, said in an April 29 letter to the commission that the April 15 unanimous vote should be voided because, he alleged, the group violated the state Freedom of Information Act by reaching a decision in private before a public meeting. Tull said the commission votes followed "very little public discussion."

Commission Chairman Alex Lieblong said the reason for rescinding the April 15 vote was because of technical difficulties that hampered the discussion.

Today's meeting was nearly an hour-and-a-half long with discussion on the Cherokee's request taking up the majority of the time of the two items on the agenda. The meeting was held at the attorney general's office -- which barred physical public access -- by using telephone audio with no video option.

While Commissioner Butch Rice spent several minutes asking Cherokee attorney Dustin McDaniel questions and issuing challenges, the remaining commissioners spoke very little, if at all.

Rice was the only dissenting vote on the agenda item. His initial motion to deny the Cherokees "good cause" exception failed to get a second.

Constitutional Amendment 100, which was passed by voters in November 2018, allows a new casino each in Pope and Jefferson counties, and allowed the expansion of gambling at the racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis. The amendment required endorsements of local officials for the new casinos.

On March 25, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled unconstitutional a commission rule requiring that the endorsements be from officials in office at the time of the application.

After agreeing to fund a $38.8 million "economic development agreement," the Cherokees received the endorsements of current public officials, including the Pope County Quorum Court, several county mayors and Ben Cross, the county judge of Pope County.

The Cherokees say their application should still be considered based on the "good cause" rule.

The rule states: "Applications for a casino license will be accepted by the Commission for a period of thirty (30) days, beginning on the date established by the Commission and published as a legal notice by the Commission. No Applications will be accepted after the thirty (30) day period, except for good cause shown."

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