A Pope County justice of the peace and seven other residents complained Monday to the Pope County prosecutor that the county judge and some members of the county's Quorum Court held private meetings -- once in a Russellville park -- in the past few months to discuss the competition for a casino license there.
Two other Pope County justices of the peace said Monday that they were invited to one of the meetings, but did not go because doing so would violate the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
Hans Stiritz, a Pope County resident, filed an affidavit on behalf of the anti-casino group Concerned Citizens of Pope County. In documents obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, dated Monday and directed to Jeff Phillips, Pope County prosecutor, Stiritz said the general subject of the "illegal meetings concern the issue of a Pope County casino license, with the outcome being a closed-door decision to award a letter of support to a casino operator absent the public discussion" required under state law. Messages left for Phillips were not returned as of late Monday. Violations of the law are a Class C misdemeanor.
Voters approved Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution in 2018 to allow the state to have four casinos, including one in Pope County. Pope County voters rejected the amendment and approved an initiated ordinance that would require local officials to seek voter approval before endorsing a casino. The state Racing Commission rejected the license applications of all five casino operators because they lacked endorsements of current local officials.
The Quorum Court will hold a special meeting at 5 p.m. today to hear proposals from casino applicants.
On Saturday, two of the five contenders for a casino license in Pope County -- Warner Gaming and the Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce -- said they were told by Ben Cross, county judge of Pope County, that the Quorum Court would support giving the license to another rival, Cherokee Nation Businesses, at the special meeting.
Multiple messages left for Cross over three days have not been returned.
Also Monday, Cherokee Nation Businesses unveiled an updated proposal -- after more than a week of teasers via billboards and newspaper advertisements -- for its "Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas" that would be located on 130 acres north of Interstate 40 along Hob Nob Road, between Weir Road and Alaskan Trail, on the northern edge of Russellville.
According to Arkansas Code Annotated 25-19-106, meetings of a public governing body are open to the public. Also, the public must be given at least two hours' notice of special meetings.
"It is our belief that these allegations will not be denied, but rather justified as necessary by those involved," Stiritz said in the letter.
Notarized affidavits from Stiritz; Pope County Justice of the Peace Joseph Pearson; and residents Anna Stiritz, Roger Fryar, Janet Fryar, Jane Harrell, Cliff Goodin and Larry Walker claim there were three meetings with Cross and multiple justices of the peace that were held without proper public notice.
In one of his two affidavits, Pearson, the District 12 justice of the peace, numbered complaints from 1 to 17 about a May 7 meeting.
Pearson said Justice of the Peace Ernie Enchelmayer called him May 6 and asked him to meet the next day with other Quorum Court members at the Shiloh Park pavilion in Russellville.
Pearson said he asked a local resident May 7 to call the Pope County clerk's office to ask when the next Quorum Court meeting would be held and was told the next meeting would be the June regular meeting. When questioned further, the county clerk said there was no meeting scheduled for May 7.
In her affidavit, Anna Stiritz said she was the one who called the county clerk's office to ask about the meeting.
Pearson said he received a voice mail May 7 from Enchelmayer stating that the meeting would now be held at 6 p.m. at the courthouse.
Pearson said he then notified other residents of the meeting and its change of venue.
"I asked several members of the Quorum Court if proper notice of the meeting had been sent out to the press, where I was assured that proper notice had been sent out," Pearson said in the affidavit.
(When contacted Monday by a Democrat-Gazette reporter, Pope County Clerk Pam Ennis said she was unaware of a May 7 meeting of the Quorum Court and there were no minutes of the meeting nor records of notification to the press or others.)
Pearson said in the affidavit that he arrived at the courthouse May 7 to find the public entrance locked. He eventually gained entrance and "saw that there were several Justices present and some members of the public."
Pearson did not state the names of the other Quorum Court members present, but an affidavit from Roger Fryar said those in attendance were: Enchelmayer, Pearson, Caleb Moore, Reuben Brown, Ray Black, Tim Whittenburg, Jackie Heflin and Doug Skelton. The Quorum Court has 13 members.
Messages left for all except Enchelmayer were not returned as of late Monday.
Enchelmayer answered a call from a Democrat-Gazette reporter while he was shopping with his children but said he could not talk.
"I get it that it's very important, but I don't have time to take out of my day right now. I've got to do family things," he said before hanging up on the reporter.
Pearson said in his affidavit that sometime after he arrived at the May 7 meeting, "Judge Cross entered the room and stated that he wanted to show the Justices the upstairs space in the Courthouse where he was moving his office."
Pearson said that while the justices of the peace were upstairs, one of them asked why citizens were present in the courthouse downstairs.
"Judge Cross told the Justices to just 'eat BBQ and go home,' and then Judge Cross left the Courthouse," Pearson said, adding that he and the other justices of the peace invited the members of the public "upstairs for BBQ."
"The Justices present and myself discussed the issue of a Pope County casino with the citizens present while everyone ate," Pearson said.
Anna Stiritz, in her affidavit, said she took a brief video of the May 7 meeting because she "was alarmed by the yelling and wanted a record."
"Most of the talk was about how the Quorum Court was not willing to send the casino issue out for a vote by the county, and that the Quorum Court had the power to choose the casino operator themselves," Anna Stiritz said in the document.
Residents Harrell, Goodin and Janet Fryar also attested that the May 7 meeting occurred and echoed the narrative of the others.
Walker said in an affidavit that he contacted the Pope County clerk's office on May 8 to request minutes of the previous day's meeting but was told there "was no meeting and therefore no minutes existed."
Walker said that about 2 p.m. that day, Cross called him to say there had indeed been a meeting and he gave Quorum Court members a tour of the courthouse annex.
"Judge Cross acknowledged that several justices had stayed behind, but he was unaware of what, if any, discussion took place," Walker said in the affidavit.
When contacted Monday, Justices of the Peace Bill Sparks and Blake Tarpley said they had been invited to the May 7 meeting in the park but did not attend.
"I really wasn't sure of why they were meeting and I didn't go," Sparks said.
Tarpley said his wife was ill at the time.
"But I wouldn't have went to it if I thought it was something improper," Tarpley said.
Sparks said he also did not attend an Aug. 1 "drinks and dinner" meeting that Hans Stiritz said in an affidavit was held at the Old Bank Grill, hosted by the Cherokee Nation and attended by "more than five Pope County Justices."
"I wouldn't have gone if I had been invited because it would have violated the Freedom of Information Act," Sparks said. "I do everything I can to respect that. You know, I've been involved in public service for a long time. Sometime you wish things were a little bit different, but when it's the law, it's the law."
Stiritz said in the affidavit that the dinner at the bank likely "resulted in an agreement for a majority of the Quorum Court to issue an exclusive letter of support to the Cherokee Nation to launch their casino gaming operation."
When asked, Cherokee Nation Businesses Vice President of Communications Amanda Clinton declined to say whether the Aug. 1 meeting occurred.
"We are excited to release details of our proposed project -- Legends Resort & Casino Arkansas -- but we very politely decline to provide any further comments today," Clinton said in an email.
Hans Stiritz also said that Cross and Justices of the Peace Moore, Enchelmayer and James Kusturin met together with representatives of Gulfside Casino Partnership on Aug. 6.
Gulfside was issued letters of support from two officials in Pope County just before they left office in December. Later, the Arkansas Racing Commission ruled that endorsement letters must come from sitting officials at the time of the application submission. Also, Act 371, approved by the Legislature this year, requires that the letters of support come from current officeholders.
Applications from Gulfside, along with those from the other four contenders for the Pope County casino license -- Kehl Management of Dubuque, Iowa; Warner Gaming of Las Vegas; Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce of Durant, Okla.; and the Cherokee Nation Businesses -- were rejected by the Racing Commission because none contained the required endorsements.
In a separate affidavit, Pearson said that on Thursday, he was told by "an anonymous Pope County Justice" that the meeting with Gulfside concerned a discussion with Gulfside owner Terry Green about a potential lawsuit.
Gulfside officials, who have appealed the Racing Commission's denial, have said previously they would seek legal remedies if their application was rejected based on the letters of endorsements coming from previous officeholders.
Amendment 100 -- which also allows a casino in Jefferson County and allows Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis to expand their operations into full-fledged casinos -- only states that endorsement from local officials is required. The amendment does not differentiate between current or previous officials or give a specific time frame for producing the endorsement.
"The anonymous Justice told me that we [Quorum Court] needed to pick a vendor because he was afraid that we would be forced into a partnership with the Gulfside Casino group," Pearson said in the second affidavit.
When contacted, Gulfside did not comment on the Aug. 6 meeting and, instead, emailed a statement and chart from Green saying that Gulfside's proposal trumps the Cherokee Nation's.
"This now one-phase $254-million project will create significant tax revenue and stop gaming dollars from going to casinos in Oklahoma--enabling maximum long-term benefits to Pope County," Green said.
Bill Warner of Warner Gaming said his company is still willing to participate in an open evaluation process "if it is fair to all competitors."
"We've been invited to submit a new proposal at a hastily called emergency meeting, and have been informed that the selection of an operator has already been made, without any kind of public deliberation," Warner said. "Obviously, this does not provide for a level playing field. A closed evaluation process with a pre-determined winner deprives the public of the benefits of a competitive process, and does not allow for any kind of public input as to what citizens of Pope County would like to see in a hotel/casino project. Should the quorum court decide to allow for a more transparent process, we stand ready to submit an updated proposal."
On Monday morning, the Cherokee Nation Businesses unveiled an updated proposal featuring renderings of a $225 million resort that would include 50,000 square feet of gambling with 1,200 slot machines and 32 table games as well as sports betting.
The resort also would feature a 200-room luxury hotel, a 15,000-square-foot meeting and conference center, a resort pool, an outdoor music venue, a recreational vehicle and dog park, and an outdoor water park.
"Since submitting our initial application to the Arkansas State Racing Commission in May, we have remained fully committed to the people of Pope County and to taking our proposed development to the next level," Shawn Slaton, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses, said in a statement. "Today, with much excitement, we are pleased to unveil our plans. We've embraced the community's feedback and are confident this resort destination brings something for everyone."
The project would be completed in one phase within 18 months and would create about 1,000 direct jobs, according to the statement.
A Section on 08/13/2019
Print Headline: Arkansas casino talks held illegally, residents say