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Pope County prosecutor: No state law prohibits canvassers from receiving money to dispose of signatures

Legislative proposal sent, he tells anti-casino group by Michael R. Wickline | August 26, 2022 at 5:27 a.m.
Jonathan Anderson (right) of Tucson, Ariz., takes a signature from David Wallace of Rogers outside the Bentonville Revenue Office in this May 29, 2020 file photo. Anderson was employed by National Ballot Access. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

A prosecuting attorney in Russellville said the state's petition fraud law doesn't address the behavior of a person offering canvassers working for a ballot committee money to dispose of signed petitions that they have gathered, so he's proposing's changing state law to address it.

Jeff Phillips, prosecuting attorney in the Fifth Judicial District, acknowledged in a letter to spokesman Han Stiritz of the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 ballot committee, which promoted a constitutional amendment to ax Pope County as a state-licensed casino site, Stiritz's position that amendment opponents were paying canvassers to "destroy documents in an attempt to frustrate an attempt to put an issue on the ballot."

"When I initially reviewed the evidence and turned it over to my chief deputy, we both felt there had to be a crime committed," he wrote in his letter dated Aug. 18 to Stiritz.

But Phillips said "we came to the conclusion that the petition fraud Statute 5-55-601 is completely silent on this type of behavior," after a through investigation and search.

He said his office has submitted a legislative proposal to the prosecutor coordinator's office for consideration at the next legislative session.

"Basically, we are proposing that Statute 5-55-601 be amended to address the type of behavior," Phillip said in his letter that he released on Thursday to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at its request. "We also proposed that an amendment could be passed to allow prosecution for tampering with public records under 5-54-121."

But David Couch, an attorney for the Arkansas Tourism Alliance, which opposed the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022' proposed constitutional amendment, said Thursday in a written statement that "These allegations against the Arkansas Tourism Alliance are baseless and entirely false, so it comes as no surprise that the prosecuting attorney has closed the file."

Phillips said his office also looked into a situation where the home of an employee of the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 burned.

"There was concern that this was not an accidental burning and could possibly be the result of an intentional criminal act," he said.

Phillips said a report by a private company that routinely conducts fire investigations purports to show intentional setting of the fire.

"I reviewed their report and could not see any determining factor that shows this wasn't an accidental fire," he said. "I was not alone in this determination, as the State Police experts both said they were surprised that the investigator came to these definitive conclusions based upon the evidence at the scene," he wrote in his letter to Stiritz.

Phillips said it's clear to him that the owners of the structure did not have any intent to do this, as it is his understanding that they did not have insurance.

"However, I think it is just as likely, if not more so, that this was an accidental fire as opposed to intentionally being set," he wrote.

Secretary of State John Thurston didn't certify the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 committee's proposed constitutional amendment aimed at removing Pope County as a state-licensed casino site for the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

One of the two requirements to qualify a ballot measure for the ballot is that the state Board of Election Commissioners must certify a proposed ballot measure's popular name and ballot title under state law.

The other requirement is the secretary of state's certification that that the sponsor submitted the required number of valid signatures of registered voters on a petition.

On Aug. 3, the state Board of Election Commissioners declined to certify the popular name and ballot title for the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 proposed constitutional amendment. The board approved a motion by board member Bilenda Harris-Ritter not to certify the ballot title for the proposed ballot title because it didn't refer to the existing casino license in Pope County and is misleading.

Cherokee Nation Businesses holds the state casino license in Pope County.

In July, the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 committee said it submitted 103,096 signatures to the secretary of state.

On Aug. 8, Thurston said the committee failed to submit enough signatures of registered voters to qualify to get 30 more days to collect additional signatures to qualify its proposal for the Nov. 8 ballot.

A ballot committee is required to submit 89,151 valid signatures of registered voters to qualify its proposed constitutional amendment for the Nov. 8 ballot.

Thurston said the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 committee needed to submit 66,864 valid signatures of registered voters to qualify for the 30-day cure period to collect more signatures, but his office verified signatures of 62,859 registered voters.

Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution -- approved by voters in November 2018 -- authorizes the Arkansas Racing Commission to issue four casino licenses.

The licenses are authorized for expanding gambling operations at Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs and Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis and for casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties with the endorsement of local officials.

Casinos are currently operating in Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and West Memphis.

In November, the Pope County casino license was awarded to Cherokee Nation Businesses to build Legends Resort & Casino after the Arkansas Racing Commission ruled to nullify the license previously awarded to Gulfside Casino Partnership. The Pope County casino license has long been a source of turmoil for the county and the state, resulting in numerous court cases.

The Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 ballot committee has been largely financed by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, according to its campaign finance reports.

The Arkansas Tourism Alliance ballot committee has been financed largely by the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation Businesses, according to its campaign finance reports.

Print Headline: Prosecutor’s letter cites gap in petition law


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