Pope County Casino Decision, Casino Far from Being Decided

When something starts with a controversy, there is every chance that it will end in one, a bold statement, yet proved again by the outcome of the casino application process in Pope County, where the Arkansas Racing Commission approved the Gulfside Casino Group for the project.

The gaming regulator in the state, after several hours of hearing and presentations from both candidates, the Cherokee Nation and the Gulfside Casino Group, used the pre-approved points system to allow commissioners cast a vote, and came out with a result that seemed to create more issues than solutions. Based on the biased vote from just one of the commission members, the Arkansas Racing Commission outpointed the Cherokee Nation and granted the license to its competitor.

Issues All the Way

The Pope County casino application process was marred with problems all the way from its inception, as it was approved by voters in November 2018, alongside the expansion of casino operations at two existing casinos, Oakland Racing Casino Resort in Garland County and Southland Casino Racing in Crittenden County, as well as a new gaming facility in Jefferson County.

Unlike in all three other counties where the processes went relatively smoothly, in Pope County, in June 2019, out of 5 applicants, the commissioners turned down all 5, due to missing pieces of documentation. Missing letters of recommendation or quorum court provision were the reasons 4 of the applications were rejected, among which one of the finalist, the Cherokee Nation.

Gulfside was also eliminated due to lack of clarity regarding the eligibility of certain documents. At one stage, the commission was facing the dilemma whether to re-start the whole process and have the casino further delayed, or to make concessions and approve at least two candidates to the final round, and commissioners voted for the latter.

Biased Vote Skewed the Final Score

The Arkansas Racing Commission voted 637-572 in favour of the Gulfside Casino Group, but it turned out a single commissioner’s vote, Butch Rice, a trucking firm owner from Beebe, managed to decide on the outcome of the vote. His 29 score for the Cherokee placed him 50 points lower than the votes from the other six members, and 44 points lower than the lowest given to Gulfside, for which he scored the maximum of 100.

Rice’s skewed vote with a 71-point gap is significantly different from the other six votes and is more than the 65-point difference that decided the outcome for the Gulfside, prompting the Cherokee to react.

“On Tuesday, I submitted a letter to the Attorney General’s office expressing my concern that an obviously biased Commissioner could potentially overturn the will of the rest of the Commission due to the proposed scoring system. Despite the AG’s office expressly warning Commissioners not to engage in arbitrary, capricious or biased scoring, Commissioner Rice in fact single handedly overturned the score given by the rest of the Commission.”

Dustin McDaniel, Legal Counsel, Cherokee Nation Businesses

The Cherokee Nation will patiently wait for the commission’s letter of rejection to start the legal battle as it will have 15 days to file an appeal.

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