Arkansas Racing Commission Chair Recuses Himself From Casino Fiasco

Posted on: July 29, 2020, 07:01h. 

Last updated on: July 29, 2020, 09:46h.

Arkansas Racing Commission (ARC) Chair Alex Lieblong has recused himself from the process to award the state’s final remaining commercial casino license, earmarked for Pope County.

Arkansas Racing Commission Pope casino
Alex Lieblong, chair of the Arkansas Racing Commission, is stepping aside in the Pope County casino license challenge. (Image: Thomas Metthe/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

In late June, text messages were revealed between Lieblong and an attorney representing the interests of the Cherokee Business Nation — one of the two final casino bidders for Pope County. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette obtained the texts through a Freedom of Information Act.

The communications seemed to show attorney Dustin McDaniel trying to influence the ARC chair’s next steps after the commission ruled that one of its members had a bias in grading the two casino proposals.

Previously, commissioner Butch Davis scored the bid from Gulfside Casino Partnership a perfect 100, while awarding the pitch from the Cherokees only 29/100 points. His scoring tipped the overall combined score in favor of Gulfside, 637-572.

The Commission voted to dismiss Rice’s score, which has thrust the casino license into disarray.

Corruption Denial 

Lieblong says that while he knows he’s done nothing wrong and has no bias in the remaining two casino proposals for Pope County, he’s recusing himself from the ongoing matter.

“I have welcomed communications from both parties, and have spoken with all sides when appropriate,” Lieblong said in a letter to the commission.

Lieblong denies any inappropriate action or bias towards either candidate. But he said he will voluntarily withdrawal his scores and votes to avoid any appearance of impropriety and restore integrity to the process. 

In the text exchange, McDaniel told Lieblong, “I think we should get AG approval to bring Byron [Freeland] in?” Freelong is a private attorney who is the commission’s counsel. McDaniel also said, “I encourage you to call Mary Robin Casteel [an attorney in Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office] and get Byron back involved before this gets more indefensible.”

Win for Gulfside?

Lieblong was one of the three commissioners who, in June, voted in favor of the Cherokee Nation casino scheme. The other four voted in favor of Gulfside. Lieblong gave the Cherokee venture a 95/100 and Gulfside a 73/100.

Legal counsel for the Arkansas Racing Commission has advised the state agency to bring in Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office to mediate the legal fiasco. The commission will meet tomorrow to further discuss how to proceed, with a slew of lawyers representing the varying interests on hand to provide their opinions.

During Thursday’s meeting, the commission could vote to formally remove Rice and Lieblong’s scores. If that were to happen, the remaining vote would be 464-448 in favor of Gulfside.

“I know of no reason of any kind why the Chairman should recuse. But I respect him as a gentleman and professional if he thinks it is best to do so,” McDaniel said in a statement.

The commission’s legal counsel said in June that regardless of the outcome, it’s “safe to say” the losing bidder will bring a lawsuit against the agency.