New legal action seeks to prevent award of casino permit in Pope County - Arkansas Times

Tuesday 28th April 2020

You perhaps thought the Pope County casino controversy was winding toward some resolution when the Racing Commission decided April 15 to hear competing proposals from the Cherokee Nation and Gulfside Casino Partnership.

Think again. An anti-casino group, Citizens for a Better Pope County, has only begun to fight in court. Casino opponents lost a battle to force an unconstitutional local referendum on a casino. But the Citizens won a victory in a separate case before Judge Wendell Griffen that invalidated the second round of applications before the Racing Commission.

But the judge left a back door and casinos came through it. The Racing Commission held that there was good cause to reconsider the Cherokee application after they got the approval of the current local Quorum Court. Gulfside had applied with a letter of approval from local officials who left office at the end of 2018.

So what now? Well, the short of it is that an amended complaint in the lawsuit before Judge Griffen says the Racing Commission failed to follow the state administrative procedures act and should be barred from awarding permits in a process now underway.

The complaint says the commission failed to publish merit criteria that would be scored to judge casino applications in either Jefferson or Pope County. The applicants were supposed to respond to those criteria. That didn't occur in either the process that led to a permit for the Quapaw tribe in Jefferson County or applications sought and received for the Pope County casino. In short, the filing argues, the state cannot take action on the pending Pope County applications. (Does this mean the Quapaw casino, up and running until the coronavirus came along, has a cloud, too? Seems unlikely for the going concern. But that's not part of this complaint.)

The filing seeks a restraining order against the award of a permit in Pope County. The two applications are currently being reviewed by a consultant who's to provide his findings to the commission this summer. The commission has said it would then hear from both applicants and make a decision.

Here's the full pleading by lawyer Jerry Malone.

So now another decision for Judge Griffen to make. Who knows? Maybe this one will lead to invalidation of the current applications and a new Racing Commission application period observing the merit criteria Malone invokes. Maybe this won't occur until 2021 when a new Quorum Court takes office and is packed with people who defeated incumbents on account of their votes for the Cherokee casino deal.

Maybe the Choctaw tribe, another Oklahoma casino operator that has been lurking on the periphery of the controversy though it didn't apply for a permit, will re-emerge as a player.

Place your bets. But it ain't over until it's over. And that could be a ways off.

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