Pope County casino license now uncertain after commission confirms scoring bias

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,690 views 

Not so fast on placing your bets. Gulfside Casino Partnership, which on June 18 was awarded a license for a a $254 million casino resort in Pope County, must now work with a competitor and the Arkansas Attorney General’s office to determine the future of the license.

The Arkansas Racing Commission on Monday (June 22) agreed that scoring bias tainted awarding of the license.

The Mississippi-based company was awarded the license over Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB). In August 2019, the Pope County Quorum Court endorsed the $225 million Cherokee Nation project. The Cherokees’ bid included a partnership with Legends, a stadium-management, sports and live entertainment company founded in 2008 by Arkansas native and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the late George Steinbrenner, former owner of the New York Yankees.

Former Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who has worked on behalf of CNB and serves as legal counsel to the group, alleged immediately after the June 18 decision that Commissioner Butch Rice of Beebe unfairly scored the CNB proposal.

“The cumulative scores awarded by the other six Review Panel Members gave CNB the highest score. However, Mr. Rice gave a 71-point advantage to Gulfside on his scoresheet (29/100 vs 100/100). In so doing, Mr. Rice deprived CNB of more than 10% of the total points available from the entire Review Panel (700). This action is not defensible as a good faith scoring of the applicants. Rather it was a calculated, unethical, biased, and unlawful action to ensure the mathematical possibility of the defeat for his preferred applicant,” McDaniel noted in a letter to the commission.

McDaniel’s call for a special meeting to address the scoring issue – and to show that Gulfside partner Terry Green lied when saying he had not been part of a bankruptcy filing – resulted in Monday’s special meeting of the commission.

On Monday the commission voted 6-0 – with Rice leaving the room prior to the vote – affirming the key allegations McDaniel made in his affidavit. Following the vote, Arkansas Deputy Attorney General Butch Reeves presented three action options to the commission.
• They could proceed with the six remaining scores and exclude Rice’s score, which would overturn the initial decision and provide the license to the Cherokee.
• They could reconsider and rescore the applications. However, this would require a rule change that would take 90 days to six months to establish.
• They could invalidate the initial scores and outsource scoring to a third party company. This would also require a rule change that could take 90 days to six months.

The commission instead voted that Gulfside and CNB meet with the AG’s office to seek “common ground on a solution,” said commission spokesman Scott Hardin.

“This will have to be determined fairly quickly as a letter was issued to Gulfside on Friday announcing the intent to award the Pope County casino license,” Hardin said in a note to Talk Business & Politics. “The Commission has 30 days from the date the letter is received to formally issue the license. Prior to the end of the 30 day period, the Commission should have feedback following meetings with both parties.”

In November 2018, Arkansas voters approved Issue 4, now Amendment 100, to allow for expanded casino operations at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort (Garland County), Southland Casino Racing (Crittenden County) and new casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties.

The approval and licensing process in Crittenden, Garland and Jefferson counties was relatively quick and smooth. Oaklawn Racing and Gaming announced plans for a $100 million-plus project that will include a new high-rise hotel, multi-purpose event center, a larger gaming area and extra on-site parking. Privately-held Delaware North is building a new 240,000 square foot casino complex and a 20-story, 300-room hotel in the Crittenden County bedroom community across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn. It is expected to open in early 2021. The Quapaw Nation was the only applicant for a casino to be located in Jefferson County. Its $350 million complex is under construction.

Following are the members of the Arkansas Racing Commission.
• Alex Lieblong, Conway
• Mark Lamberth, Batesville
• Butch Rice, Beebe
• Denny East, Marion
• Michael Post, Altus
• Bo Hunter, Fort Smith
• Steve Landers, Little Rock