Racing Commission leaves Gulfside as Pope County casino license winner despite pleas

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 1,348 views 

Gulfside Casino Partnership remains the Pope County casino license holder after a three-hour meeting on Thursday (July 30), but don’t expect a groundbreaking anytime soon.

In Thursday’s meeting, the Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) – which has sought the casino license for its Legends casino – attempted to prove Gulfside was deceitful in its application process. However, Arkansas Racing Commission members did not reverse their previous scoring decision from June 18.

On June 22, the commission agreed that scoring bias tainted awarding of the license to Gulfside after Commissioner Butch Rice of Beebe scored the Cherokee proposal 71 points lower than Gulfside’s. That scoring discrepancy plus accusations that Gulfside partner Terry Green lied about his role in a previous bankruptcy filing led to Thursday’s appeal.

“This appeal will demonstrate why Gulfside Partnership should not be awarded a license regardless of what their scores are because they are in violation of your rules,” Dustin McDaniel, attorney for the Cherokee Nation Businesses and a former Arkansas Attorney General, said during Thursday’s meeting.

McDaniel hammered Gulfside on their business dealings including what he called a pattern of bankruptcy issues, some dating back to 1989.

“Your scores on the 18th [of June] were based on misleading, incorrect, false, fraudulent information that was presented to you specifically with the purpose of deceiving you and hoping that you didn’t dig into it, look into it, find out about it until later,” McDaniel told commissioners.

Gulfside’s attorney, Casey Castleberry, refuted claims lobbed by McDaniel and explained the current partners’ connections to bankruptcy issues dating years ago. He also said they stand by the applications they submitted.

“I don’t think my competitor is in much of a position to complain… They’re on their third application, apparently fourth application, in which there have been changes made along the way. We submitted an application on May 17, 2019 – it’s the same application that was before you on June 18, 2020.”

Ultimately, the commission voted 3-2 to deny CNB’s appeal. When commission vice-chairman, Mark Lamberth, asked the commissioners whether they would re-score applications, no one answered. Lamberth said, “Silence is golden.”

Arkansas Racing Commission chairman Alex Lieblong recused from Thursday’s vote earlier citing a vague accusation of bias. He did not make specific the reason for recusing.

“While I know that I have not acted inappropriately, nor am I in any way biased toward either of the candidates, and to avoid any appearance of impropriety and remove any doubts as to the integrity of either myself or this process, I am voluntarily withdrawing my scores and recusing from any votes regarding the Pope County Casino licensing matter,” he said in a statement released earlier in the week.

Rice also did not participate in the appeal based on the previous controversy surrounding his scoring decision.

Following the meeting, Gulfside’s co-owner, Terry Green, released this statement: “We appreciate the Racing Commission’s thoughtful decision and continued support and look forward to breaking ground on our first-class casino resort, which we believe will be an economic winner for Russellville, Pope County and Arkansas.”

CNB said it would explore legal options in the wake of the vote. McDaniel released a statement following the meeting.

“The Commission entered the full report of its consultant affirming that Legends is the superior applicant on all grading criteria, and we brought a mountain of proof that Mr. Green had made many misleading and inaccurate statements about their experience, finances and Pope County project,” he said. “Then, Mr. Green admitted that his past financial and legal problems made him ineligible for four years to even hold a gaming license in Mississippi. Yet, the Commission declined to re-score the applications, denied our appeal by a 3-2 vote, and gave Gulfside the license in spite of everything. It will take me a while to wrap my head around that.”

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

Editor’s note: KATV senior political reporter Marine Glisovic contributed to this report.