Gulfside Casino Partnership asks court to rule on its Arkansas lawsuit
RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. – With Cherokee Nation Businesses awaiting movement on its request to site a resort and casino in Pope County, a competing interest has asked a Pulaski County circuit court to rule on the civil case it filed in 2019.
Gulfside Casino Partnership filed its lawsuit in August after all applicants, including CNB, had their license applications rejected.
The documents filed by Gulfside on Feb. 4 include an email from Arkansas Racing Commission attorney Bryon Freeland stating a rule change that nullified Gulfside’s application was put in place after consultation with Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office.
Gulfside received endorsements from local officials during their last days in office. The ARC denied the application because it had adopted the rule change – and the Arkansas Legislature passed a law – requiring any endorsing officials be in office when the commission receives the license application. The Gulfside suit claims the endorsements are valid and the ARC should have considered its application because the new rule is unconstitutional.
In correspondence with Arkansas media, Hutchinson spokeswoman Katie Beck wrote that “all state offices, departments, and agencies have submitted proposed rules and regulations and amendments to the Governor’s office for review and approval, prior to submission to a legislative committee of the General Assembly.”
She added that “The Governor’s office has confidence in the Attorney General’s office to respond in detail to the pending motion.”
Also communicating with Arkansas media, Scott Hardin of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration said the ARC is not yet slated to consider the Pope County license, and the commissioners expected a court hearing for Gulfside in late March, pending any action on its Feb. 4 filing. Meanwhile, Gulfside attorney Lucas Rowan said his client was confident in its case.
In January 2019, then-CNB CEO Shawn Slaton reported to the Tribal Council that Gulfside had received a support letter from Jim Ed Gibson, the former quorum court judge, and former Russellville Mayor Randy Horton, just before their terms expired.
“The whole town of Russellville erupted and accused them of going around the process,” Slaton said. “The outgoing judge, the outgoing mayor really took it on the chin from the community. So did the casino operator that basically tried to backdoor the process.”
Gulfside’s filing includes documentation it says shows the ARC unanimously agreed to adopt wording that only required endorsements be made after the enactment of Amendment 100 to the Arkansas constitution. The endorsement letters from Horton and Gibson are included, as is an email from Freeland to Carlton Saffra, a strategist for the governor’s office, saying an endorsement letter from Jefferson County is “valid if written after the Amendment became effective.”
The filing also contains documentation that Freeland wrote an email proposing to change the rule three days after receiving the Horton letter. Gulfside claims that the change was intended to undermine the request for a casino license, and “There can be no doubt that these added requirements are unconstitutional.”
There is also an email by Freeland to attorney Kathryn Henry of the Bureau of Legislative Review, in which he addressed her disquiet with the proposal.
Freeland wrote that the rule change was carefully reviewed by the commission, the governor’s office and the DF&A, and it was “consistent with the meaning and intent of Amendment 100. If letters of support were allowed from county officials or mayors holding office in 2018, those letters would have been issued prior to the adoption of the Casino Gaming rules by the ARC; prior to the opening of the application process; and prior to the submission of a casino gaming license application by any person or entity.”
CNB is still awaiting the results of court cases to see whether it gets the go-ahead to build its first casino outside Oklahoma.
The ARC was expected to consider CNB’s casino application; however, on Jan. 3, Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen granted a temporary restraining order against the ARC.
Citizens for a Better Pope County, which opposes opening a casino, successfully lobbied for the order by arguing the ARC had already broken its rules by allowing a second permit application period. The group claims a second application period was only legal if no applications were received during the first. The ARC received five applications, including CNB’s, during the initial period, but all were rejected because none received endorsements from county officials, per ARC regulations. CNB submitted an application during the second filing period that included the requisite endorsements.
The Gulfside case remains set for a motions hearing on March 30. No hearing has been arranged for the Citizens for a Better Pope County case.