State to await ruling before deciding Pope County casino license

Thursday 5th March 2020

The Arkansas Racing Commission will wait for the courts to have their say before deciding whether Cherokee Nation Businesses should be considered for a license to operate a casino in Pope County.

The body convened Wednesday morning to consider whether the Cherokees should be permitted to retroactively submit a casino license application that includes the requisite support letters from Pope County officials.

But after reading the letter and having a short discussion, the commission voted unanimously to table any action on Cherokee Nation Businesses' request until the conclusion of a competing casino group's lawsuit against the commission.

It's the latest delay in a complex legal fight over who should get Arkansas' fourth and final casino license.

Commission Chairman Alex Lieblong of Conway said he hopes the courts will move quickly, and that the commission may reconsider the Cherokees' request if the litigation isn't resolved in a timely fashion.

He expressed frustration at the pace of the casino licensing issue, and he noted that the commission was doing its best to be fair to all sides.

"I don't know what a reasonable time period is anymore," Lieblong said.

The fight over a Pope County casino began when Arkansans voted to expand gambling in the state, approving Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution in 2018.

The first three of the four casino licenses -- whose counties were laid out in Amendment 100 -- were issued without hitches to Southland Casino Gaming in West Memphis, Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff.

However, Pope County was far more reluctant to accept a casino. During the first license application period in May 2019, five companies applied for a license, but they were all rejected for lacking letters of support from current elected officials in Pope County.

Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi, though, did submit support letters from outgoing officials, who had left office in December 2018.

Amendment 100 doesn't specify when the endorsements have to be dated or submitted, but the Racing Commission passed a rule -- and the General Assembly a state law -- that requires the support of elected officials in office at the time of application.

Gulfside sued the commission, arguing that its support letter did, in fact, meet the constitutional requirements. The case is scheduled for a March 30 hearing before Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox.

The commission on Wednesday cited the Gulfside case as the primary reason for delaying action on the Cherokee Nation Businesses' request. Deputy Attorney General Olan "Butch" Reeves told the commission that the case would likely be appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, regardless of Fox's decision. Fox also has acknowledged the near certainty of appeal.

Reeves cautioned the commission that it should be hesitant to award the Cherokees a license before the conclusion of the Gulfside suit.

"What if the judge decides Gulfside had a valid application?" Reeves said.

The commission opened a second application period, running from Aug. 19 to Nov. 18, after Cherokee Nation Businesses obtained a letter of support from Pope County Judge Ben Cross.

However, the commission scrapped that application period after Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen issued a temporary restraining order barring the commission from accepting an application from the second window.

Griffen, though, said his temporary restraining order doesn't bar the Racing Commission from taking applications submitted after the deadline for the initial May application based on "good cause shown," as cited in the commission's casino rules.

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."

In a Jan. 15 letter, Chuck Garrett, chief executive officer for Cherokee Nation Businesses, asked the commission to accept his group's supplemental application with support letters included based on the good-cause provision because Pope County officials refused to support any casino groups until after the May application period concluded.

If the commission decides to grant the good-cause exemption, it would still have to conduct a merit evaluation of the application.

"We remain steadfast in our position that good cause exists for our application to be accepted into the May 2019 period," Garrett said in a statement Wednesday. "We hope that the Commission schedules another meeting in the near future to accept our application after it completes its review of all relevant information and consideration of the legal counsel provided by the AG's office. We remain confident that we will ultimately be issued the license as the only applicant to have received the required support from current County officials in compliance with Amendment 100, Arkansas law, and the Racing Commission's Casino Rules."

Metro on 03/05/2020

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