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Lawsuit filed over casino license for Pope County, contending Cherokee firm lacks experience

by Jeannie Roberts | December 8, 2021 at 6:47 a.m.
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A lawsuit filed Tuesday asked the Pulaski County Circuit Court to issue a temporary restraining order halting any movement on a casino in Pope County until the question of whether Legends Resort and Casino has casino experience can be answered.

The case -- filed by John "Cliff" Goodin in the courtroom of Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox -- also takes issue with how the license recipient's name is listed on the gambling license issued last month.

"When the Arkansas Racing Commission issued the license, we were surprised to see that they issued it to something called 'Cherokee Nation Businesses, LLC/Legends Resort and Casino, LLC,'" Jerry Malone, the attorney for Goodin, said. "There is no such entity. We researched the secretary of state's office and there is no listing for this company."

Malone added, even if the license had listed only Legends Resort and Casino, the Racing Commission would still be in violation of Amendment 100 because Legends has no gambling experience, as required under the state constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2018.

The amendment allows casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties as well as at the established race tracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis.

Goodin asked in the petition for a declaratory judgment and injunction that Fox declare that the Racing Commission unconstitutionally issued the license despite Legends not being a qualified applicant under Amendment 100 and to declare it unconstitutional for the commission to award the license to the "non-applicant entity" Cherokee Nation Businesses LLC/Legends Resort and Casino LLC.

Legends Resort and Casino -- which was formed as an Arkansas limited liability company on Sept. 11, 2019 -- submitted an application on Jan. 15, 2020, to the Racing Commission for the license.

Before that, the application was solely in the name of Cherokee Nation Businesses, a company wholly owned by Cherokee Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the U.S.

"CNB's history in the hospitality and gaming industry spans more than three decades," Chuck Garrett, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses, said in an email Tuesday. "We helped pioneer casino gaming in Oklahoma, and our operations have grown to include 10 casinos and associated hospitality amenities, including restaurants, entertainment venues, hotels, golf courses, and a horseracing track."

Dustin McDaniel, Cherokee Nation Businesses' attorney, said the Pope County license was issued "properly and consistently" with Racing Commission rules and "CNB's application."

"We are confident in our legal position and will work quickly to dismiss this new lawsuit which rehashes old allegations already addressed by the Arkansas Racing Commission, not to mention the Commission's expert consultant which found CNB to have superior experience," McDaniel said.

When asked for comment about the legal challenge, Racing Commission spokesman Scott Hardin said the commission was aware of the complaint made in Tuesday's filing, and that "a very similar issue is pending before Judge Fox."

"However, as a policy the Racing Commission does not speak to the specifics of active litigation," Hardin said.

When asked, Malone said Goodin is a member of the anti-casino group Citizens for a Better Pope County, but Goodin filed the suit as an individual and was simply a "concerned Pope County resident" who "honestly believes they don't need casino gambling in Pope County."

"This is his fervent belief that he wants to go forward with this," Malone said.

Hans Stiritz, spokesman for Citizens for a Better Pope County, said that while Goodin's case was filed in his individual capacity, the group fully supports his efforts.

"Any license that is awarded in contravention of the Arkansas Constitution, other applicable law, or the Arkansas casino gaming rules should be declared invalid," Stiritz said.

Cherokee Nation Businesses and Legends Resort and Casino were awarded the license on Nov. 12 after the Supreme Court reversed and dismissed a ruling by Fox that declared unconstitutional a commission rule and state law that required that letters of endorsements for casino licenses come from local officials in office at the time the license application is submitted.

The initial case was brought by Mississippi casino operator Gulfside Casino Partnership in 2019 after its license application was denied by the Racing Commission because its letter of support was signed by then-Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson just days before his term expired on Dec. 31, 2018.

The Racing Commission did not open the first application period until May 2019.

Cherokee Nation Businesses later submitted an application to the Racing Commission after gaining support from Ben Cross, the current Pope County county judge, as well as from the Pope County Quorum Court members at the time.

Cross wrote a letter of support for Cherokee Nation Businesses after he negotiated a $38.8 million economic development agreement with the business.

After the latest Supreme Court ruling in the case, Gulfside filed a motion for summary judgment in Pulaski County Circuit Court, saying Legends Resort and Casino should be disqualified because it doesn't have casino gambling experience as required under Amendment 100.

Choctaw Nation -- an early contender for the Pope County license -- recently filed a motion to intervene in that case.

When asked whether Goodin was asked by Gulfside to file Tuesday's suit, Malone said Gulfside was not involved at all.

"Everything is aboveboard," Malone said.

Gulfside declined to comment.

The Cherokees plan to construct Legends -- a $225 million casino and resort with 1,100 slot machines, 32 table games and 200 hotel rooms -- near Russellville, off Hob Nob Road.

Print Headline: Suit over casino license in Pope County claims firm lacks experience


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