Legal briefs submitted in Arkansas casino dispute

An artist’s rendering of the Legends Resort & Casino that Cherokee Nation Businesses hopes to build in Pope County, Arkansas. 

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Gulfside Casino Partnership, the gaming operation against which Cherokee Nation Businesses is fighting for the right to open a casino in Russellville, has submitted a filing with the Arkansas Supreme Court asking that Pope County not be allowed to enter the licensing case.

Gulfside filed Aug. 20 in response to an amicus brief submitted on Aug. 9 by County Judge Ben Cross, of Pope County, on behalf of CNB.

Though Gulfside was awarded the casino license in July 2020, CNB has contended that Gulfside’s bid ran afoul of Arkansas gaming law because it used endorsements from county officials no longer in office at the time of submission, among other arguments.

CNB has also taken legal issue with Gulfside’s plans to open a smaller preliminary gaming venue as the larger facility is being built. CNB says the “annex” was never mentioned in the Gulfside proposal.

“Pope County’s interests are different from CNB’s,” said CNB attorney Dustin McDaniel. “It has millions of dollars at stake, and it is suing Gulfside in a separate case to stop Gulfside from building a small casino project instead of what they presented to the (Arkansas) Racing Commission.”

Gulfside’s Aug. 20 filing pointed to a footnote reading that CNB had made a financial contribution to the preparation of the county brief.

“As this entire issue has developed over the past three years, the one thing I have consistently sought to accomplish was to keep the taxpayers of Pope County from having to fund litigation at the state level,” said Cross in an Aug. 20 statement. “If allowing CNB to participate in that sense keeps the taxpayers of our county from such needless spending, then I have accomplished that goal.”

McDaniel said the filing met the rules of the Arkansas Supreme Court for disclosure.

“To the extent that there is confusion, attorneys representing CNB at Fuqua Campbell, PA assisted the county’s attorney in the preparation of the brief, thus the footnote,” McDaniel said. “But to be clear, Fuqua Campbell, PA does not represent the county, and CNB did not pay a penny to the county or to the county’s attorney Mr. (Clay) McCall for the brief or for any other purpose.”

McCall, who resigned as county attorney in January, is working in Cross’s county judge office. Cross told Arkansas media that McCall was paid $1 to work on the brief.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox has ruled – twice – that the ARC rule and the annotated code approved by the Arkansas Legislature, requiring license endorsements from local officials in office when the applications are submitted, are an unconstitutional addition not demanded by Amendment 100.

Amendment 100, approved by Arkansas voters, allowed the establishment of new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties, and expansion of the horse track facilities at Hot Springs and West Memphis to include casino gaming.

CNB and Gulfside were among five applicants rejected during the initial application window because none were endorsed by local officials still in office, per the rule adopted by the ARC and the law passed by the Arkansas Legislature.

CNB has repeatedly argued that Gulfside’s application could not receive approval due to invalid endorsements. Gulfside’s submission was endorsed by officials who had since left office: Jim Ed Gibson, while Pope County judge, and Randall Horton while mayor of Russellville.

There was some ambiguity in Amendment 100 about when endorsements were to be submitted, which the ARC and state Legislature attempted to clarify. The ARC passed Rule 2.13.4(b) requiring endorsements only from local officials in office when the application is submitted. Arkansas lawmakers passed Act 371 also requiring endorsements from those in office.

Gulfside appealed the rejection of its application, and after being denied, sued the ARC and Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, claiming their requirements ran counter to Amendment 100.

Cross was in the crosshairs of a Pope County Quorum resolution that chided him for acting without consultation with the rest of the quorum court – drafted in response to Cross filing the Aug. 9 amicus brief. The quorum court judges approved the resolution 9-3 on Aug. 16, and it was deemed void the next day. Dist. 12 Justice Joseph Parton said the resolution hadn’t been read by title.