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Busy day on casino front includes rebid for license, filing of ethics complaints

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Busy day on casino front includes rebid for license, filing of ethics complaints
Ben Elder (center), an attorney for Cherokee Nation Businesses of Oklahoma, hands Arkansas Racing Commission executive assistant Nikki Langston (left) a box of documents Thursday in Little Rock as he and another attorney filed the group’s new application for a casino license in Pope County. – Photo by John Sykes Jr.

Cherokee Nation Businesses reapplied Thursday for a casino license, three days after the state Racing Commission opened a 90-day window for accepting another round of bids for a license in Pope County.

Also on Thursday, a Pulaski County circuit judge ruled that a lawsuit filed by a rejected casino license applicant against the Racing Commission be heard instead in Pope County Circuit Court.

And a central Arkansas lawyer filed three complaints with the state Ethics Commission against Pope County justices of the peace, alleging that one is benefiting financially from the sale of land earmarked for the proposed Cherokee Nation Businesses casino, another violated ethics law by holding secret meetings with fellow Quorum Court members, and another collected legal fees from another casino applicant.

The newest application includes a resolution signed last week by the Pope County Quorum Court endorsing Cherokee Nation Businesses for a casino license there. The Quorum Court chose the Cherokees over four other contenders.

“Today, we submitted our application to the Arkansas State Racing Commission to build Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas. We are pleased to have the full endorsement and support of the Pope County Quorum Court,” Chuck Garrett, chief executive officer of Cherokee Nation Businesses, said in an email. “We are wholly committed to the community and look forward to receiving the license.”

The second window for applications was opened up after all five applicants for the Pope County casino — Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi; Cherokee Nation Businesses of Oklahoma; Kehl Management of Iowa; Warner Gaming of Nevada; and Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce of Oklahoma — were rejected by the Racing Commission in June because none contained endorsements by current local officials.

Amendment 100 of the Arkansas Constitution was passed by state voters in November, paving the way for new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties and allowing Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis to expand their gambling operations into full-fledged casinos.

GULFSIDE’S SUIT

The amendment requires endorsement by local officials in Pope and Jefferson counties. The commission created a rule and the Legislature a law to require that the officials be currently in office at the time the application is made.

Gulfside’s application included letters of support issued in December from Pope County and Russellville officials just before they left office.

The lawsuit was filed by Gulfside on Aug. 15 in Pulaski County Circuit Court against the state Department of Finance and Administration and the Racing Commission. Arkansas Code 16-60-104(2) allows civil action against a state entity or its officers to be filed either in Pulaski County Circuit Court or another county under state venue laws.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox moved the case from his court to Pope County Circuit Court saying that it is “reasonable to assume” that more Pope County officials will be “either added as additional defendants or seek leave to be intervenors.”

It’s likely as well that the suit will result in a jury trial, Fox said in his ruling.

“There are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake relating to construction and maintenance, all of which will occur in Pope County,” Fox wrote. “There are hundreds of opportunities for employment in Pope County that will be affected by a final court decision in this case. There are substantial tax dollars at stake in Pope County that will be affected by a final court decision in this matter.”

It is “patently clear” from the complaint, Fox said, that the “best interests of judicial economy and efficiency are served by this matter being conducted in Pope County.”

In a draft of a motion from Gulfside, expected to be filed today, Gulfside attorney Casey Castleberry asked Fox to reconsider and keep the case in the Pulaski County Circuit Court.

“The nature of the legal and factual claims are entirely against state officials, all of whom are based in Pulaski County, and not against any officials in Pope County,” Castleberry said in the filing. “Gulfside asserts no claims against any Pope County elected official, and no Pope County official has any right to intervene in this case.”

ETHICS COMPLAINTS

On Thursday, Jacksonville lawyer William J. Ogles, an attorney with Ogles Law firm, provided the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette with copies of three complaints that he filed with the state Ethics Commission against Pope County Justices of the Peace Caleb Moore, Doug Skelton and Ernie Enchelmayer.

“I have recently become very troubled after seeing the increasing amount of news coverage over the past few weeks pertaining to allegations of public corruption,” Ogles said. “I felt the need to file complaints with the Ethics Commission after doing my own research because I believe public trust should never be taken lightly. I am hopeful the Ethics Commission will investigate the allegations thoroughly.”

Ogles said he does not represent any of the five contenders for a Pope County casino license.

[DOCUMENTS: Read ethics complaints filed against Pope County justices » arkansasonline.com/823ethics]

In one complaint, Ogles alleges that Moore, who works as a real estate agent in his father’s firm, Moore and Co. Realtors in Russellville, is benefiting from the reported pending sale of 135 acres north of Interstate 40.

In its news release last week, Cherokee Nation Businesses said the casino would be located on 130 acres north of I-40 along Hob Nob Road, between Weir Road and Alaskan Trail, on the northern edge of Russellville.

Ogles provides no documentation in the complaint that Moore or his father’s real estate firm is involved in the land deal.

In an Aug. 14 letter to the Democrat-Gazette, Tony Moore, owner of Moore and Co. Realtors, said Caleb Moore and Caleb’s wife, Jodi Moore, are executive brokers for his company but have “never been in ownership of the firm, and has no investment in the company.”

“Caleb and Jodi have written no offers in reference to any of the casino operators who have been to this area,” Tony Moore said in the letter.

Ogles contends in another complaint that Skelton is guilty of “misconduct” because his law firm, Skelton Law Firm, previously provided legal representation to Gulfside. Ogles’ complaint offers no proof.

Skelton was one of the eight justices of the peace who voted Aug. 13 to endorse Cherokee Nation Businesses.

Ogles alleges in his Enchelmayer complaint that Enchelmayer’s wife, Valerie Enchelmayer, serves on the board of the River Valley Arts Center, which will receive a $10,000 payment under the Economic Development Agreement provided by Cherokee Nation Businesses.

In the complaints against Enchelmayer and Caleb Moore, Ogles says they were involved in “a series of illegal meetings” with County Judge Ben Cross and other members of the Pope County Quorum Court, along with representatives of Cherokee Nation Businesses, before the endorsement vote.

Ogles attached a copy of a complaint filed last week by Hans Stiritz on behalf of the anti-casino group Concerned Citizens of Pope County — which also contained affidavits from Pope County Justice of the Peace Joseph Pearson and six other residents — with Pope County prosecutor Jeff Phillips alleging that county officials held meetings that violated the Freedom of Information Act to discuss casinos.

A special prosecutor — as requested by Phillips — has not yet been assigned to the case, according to the office of the prosecutor coordinator in Little Rock.

Messages left for Caleb Moore, Skelton and Enchelmayer were not returned as of late Thursday.

POSSIBLE ANNEXATION

Russellville Mayor Richard Harris, in a special called meeting Tuesday, discussed the idea of annexing into the city the land earmarked for the Cherokee Nation Businesses casino and outlined the procedure for doing so in an email to council members.

While no decision was made, Harris said the annexation is needed because the city will collect 19.5% of the revenue taxes collected from the casino. If the land remains under the county’s jurisdiction, the city receives nothing.

“An annexation of the property associated with the Casino is necessary to help ensure that the city has adequate funding to address a Casino’s impact on city resources and infrastructure such as fire protection, police, roads, etc.,” Harris said in an email to the Democrat-Gazette.

When asked if he was in negotiations with Cherokee Nation Businesses or any other casino interests, Harris responded, “No.”

CASINO COMPETITION

Three of the applicants were vague when asked if they would still pursue a license in Pope County even though the Quorum Court already endorsed the Cherokees.

Gulfside did not return a call seeking comment.

“Our hope is that the Quorum Court and Judge Cross will consider any additional proposals on the merits of what’s best for Pope County residents,” said John Burris, spokesman for the Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce.

Warner Gaming CEO Bill Warner said his group remains “very interested” in delivering the Hard Rock Arkansas to Pope County “if an opportunity arises for a more open process regarding the support letter.

“At this time, we have not determined any particular course of action,” Warner said. “We’ll continue to monitor things and assess our options.”

Robert McLarty, spokesman for Kehl Management, said, “You never say never.”

“We feel that under the right circumstances, we would,” McLarty said.

Cross said Thursday in an email that choosing Cherokee Nation Businesses for the endorsement was the absolute right decision.

“While some potential vendors came to town like high-pressured cars salesman CNB were extremely ‘low key’ and listened to what local leaders throughout the river valley conveyed in the way of concerns, and addressed those issues without having to be asked,” Cross said. “Pope County was never consulted on Amendment 100, and in dealing with the aftermath of a statewide vote, CNB were the most conscientious of the fact Pope county still did not want a casino.”

Pope County voters soundly rejected the amendment and approved an initiated county ordinance that would require officials to seek voter approval before backing a proposal.

Before last week’s Quorum Court endorsement, Cross negotiated an 11-page “Economic Development Agreement” with Cherokee Nation Businesses that also included an initial $38.8 million “economic development fee.”

Cross said Cherokee Nation Businesses was “the absolute very first to come with a gratitude approach to community support.”

“It is my fiduciary responsibility under the law as county judge to protect the financial interests of our county, so while I remained steadfast in my commitment to uphold the wishes of Pope County voters and not issue a letter of support to a casino vendor, I still have a mandated responsibility to protect and enter into agreements and contracts as CEO of the county,” Cross said. “Therefore, when CNB first brought up the concept of a local economic development package, and openly expressed their intent to support local government in the development of any facility, it established a baseline of local support.”

Support for a casino gained traction in June when the grass-roots group Pope County Majority was created on Facebook by Kelly Jett and quickly collected thousands of members. Jett said Thursday that the representatives for Cherokee Nation quickly showed that they were members of the Pope County community.

“They were here. They came to meetings and events. They didn’t publicize it because it’s not their style. City Council meetings, Quorum Court meetings,” Jett said. “They got to know this city. They didn’t just pop in on occasion like the others. They made an impact here on everyone that was passionate about this issue. That is how they won the support.”

 

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