Legislative committee calls for investigation into Pope County casino petition campaign

Panel calls for investigation of heated petition campaign

Hanz Stiritz (from left), spokesman for the Fair Play for Arkansas Committee; John Burris with the Capitol Advisors Group; and Tom Pollard with Blitz Canvassing are sworn in before giving testimony to the state Legislature’s Joint Performance Review Committee near the state Capitol in Little Rock on Thursday.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Hanz Stiritz (from left), spokesman for the Fair Play for Arkansas Committee; John Burris with the Capitol Advisors Group; and Tom Pollard with Blitz Canvassing are sworn in before giving testimony to the state Legislature’s Joint Performance Review Committee near the state Capitol in Little Rock on Thursday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

State lawmakers are calling for an investigation into a bitter petition campaign over a proposed Pope County casino that has led to accusations of threats, intimidation and arson in what one lawmaker said has made direct democracy in Arkansas seem like "a complete cluster expletive."

The Joint Performance Review Committee held a hearing Thursday so representatives from the opposed parties -- Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and Cherokee Nation Businesses, also of Oklahoma -- could rehash their dispute in front of lawmakers. But discussion explaining how the campaign turned into such a bitter feud left legislative committee members perplexed, with lawmakers comparing the dispute to rival gangs fighting over territory and intimidation tactics used by Nazi street enforcers.

State lawmakers are now calling on the Arkansas attorney general's office, the Prosecutor Coordinator's Office, Arkansas State Police and the State Board of Election Commissioners to investigate the matter.

The committee also unanimously approved a resolution calling on the Bureau of Legislative Research to work with the Arkansas Ethics Commission to develop research to provide guidance to legislators. The resolution also asks the Bureau of Legislative Research to work with the Arkansas Racing Commission to address "potentially harmful actions by any licensees."

Statewide ballot campaigns can get heated in Arkansas -- especially when there are millions of dollars on the line -- but a proposed constitutional amendment to cancel a license for a casino in Pope County has taken things to another level, witnesses told the committee.

"It does feel like Arkansas is the victim of a turf battle between rival gangs because there is a lot of money to be made, and when there's a lot of money to be made there is a temptation to acquire that money by whatever means possible," said Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock.

Sen. Kim Hammer, chair of the Joint Performance Review Committee, said the purpose of Thursday's hearing was to shed light on the constitutional amendment and referendum process, which has become awash in cash. The dispute between Choctaw Nation and Cherokee Nation Businesses even prompted one lawmaker to question Arkansas' long tradition of direct democracy.

Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma spent millions of dollars to back a proposed constitutional amendment to remove Pope County as a site for a fourth casino in the state. Choctaw's effort also sparked an opposing campaign funded by a competitor, Cherokee Nation Businesses, which was awarded the gaming license for the planned casino in Russellville.

However, Cherokee Nation Businesses' planned casino is in jeopardy after a Pulaski County circuit judge ruled in January the Arkansas Racing Commission erred when awarding the gaming license. Cherokee Nation Businesses has appealed the ruling to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Both groups spent millions backing groups to campaign on their behalf. The campaign for the amendment was led by Fair Play for Arkansas, which raised $4.1 million, almost entirely from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The Arkansas Tourism Alliance, which opposed the proposed amendment, received $2.3 million from Cherokee Nation Businesses.

"The amending our constitution business has turned into big business," John Burris, a lobbyist hired by Fair Play for Arkansas, told the committee. "It is often driven by corporations seeking a profit off of some sort of a monopoly that they hope to gain from the petition process."

Choctaw, which owns and operates a casino in Pocola, Okla., just across the state line from Fort Smith, funded a campaign that called for the removal of the license for the Pope County casino. Former Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who represents the Arkansas Tourism Alliance, accused Choctaw of teaming up with locals in Pope County who opposed the casino so they could undercut a competitor.

The proposed constitutional amendment never made it to the ballot in 2022, something that Fair Play for Arkansas -- the group behind the petition effort -- blamed on its rival, the Arkansas Tourism Alliance. Fair Play said "blockers" harassed, intimidated and offered cash to their canvassers to destroy signed petitions.

"These kinds of things are not normal. They are not free speech activities," said Tim Pollard of Blitz Canvassing, a Denver-based firm hired by Fair Play for Arkansas to help gather signatures. "These are things that approach criminality."

Representatives for Arkansas Tourism Alliance said the group merely engaged in "blocking," or attempting to convince people to not sign a petition. Blocking can include holding signs, handing out fliers and directly appealing to voters.

McDaniel admitted things became heated between paid canvassers and blockers but said he didn't have evidence of canvassers working on behalf of the Arkansas Tourism Alliance committing any criminal activity.

Pollard and Burris also accused opponents of their petition effort of attempting to run their canvassers off the road and following their canvassers home. In one instance, though barely touched on during Thursday's hearing, the house of one of the paid canvassers for Fair Play burned down in June 2022, which prompted accusations of foul play.

A private investigator hired by Fair Play said the fire "was deliberately set with malice." But Jeff Phillips, the prosecuting attorney for Pope, Johnson and Franklin counties, said in a statement to the committee that "based upon the information provided to me, I do not feel that this case can proceed forward with the information I have."

Another instance shows a blocker working on behalf of the Arkansas Tourism Alliance's offering a canvasser from Fair Play $1,000 and an additional $700 a week to quit and "throw your petitions in the trash," according to a transcript of the audio provided to the committee.

McDaniel said he had no knowledge of the group offering money to canvassers to destroy signed petitions and that he would not condone that tactic. Instead, McDaniel said, the group actively sought to recruit paid canvassers from the opposing side with higher pay.

McDaniel also said Fair Play's petition effort failed not because of the Arkansas Tourism Alliance's blocking campaign, but because the secretary of state's office found that their petition contained thousands of faulty signatures.

Kristin Foster, the blocker who made the $1,000 offer on the transcript, said she made the proposition to the Fair Play canvasser at 7 a.m. before a single signature had been collected. The incident prompted the Legislature to pass a law in the past session making it a Class A misdemeanor for a person to intentionally destroy or discard signed petitions.

"No, I offered people an alternative job basically," Foster said when asked if she offered to pay people to destroy the signatures.

McDaniel told the committee Fair Play was not innocent of wrongdoing, accusing the group of purposely misleading voters about their petition campaign and hiring a man with a long list of criminal convictions. Burris also accused the Arkansas Tourism Alliance of hiring a California-based political operative with a criminal history. David Couch, a Little Rock attorney also representing the Arkansas Tourism Alliance, said the group paid the man $650,000 not to assist Fair Play with its campaign, which Couch said recruited the man.

Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, who censored himself when calling the affair "a complete cluster expletive," said he plans to show clips from the hearing to his constituents in hopes of persuading them that the direct democracy process in Arkansas is corrupted.

"This is not democracy," Pilkington said. "This is, sounds like, Gestapo-style Brownshirts running around harassing each other."

Couch, a leader of many direct democracy campaigns including the constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana, responded by saying, "This is pure democracy. This is America."

Rep. Jim Wooten, R-Beebe, said the dispute is evidence that legalized gambling is a mistake.

"What you're hearing today is [a dispute] between two casino groups that are attempting to spend millions of dollars in order that we can have our people go to these casinos and spend their hard-earned money," he said.

  photo  Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Performance Review Committee, asks a question of John Burris with the Capitol Advisors Group during a meeting near the state Capitol in Little Rock on Thursday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)