Former Rockingham Supervisor Sues Foes Over North Carolina Casino Attacks

Posted on: June 18, 2024, 09:08h. 

Last updated on: June 18, 2024, 09:21h.

Longtime Rockingham government official Craig Travis sought to regain his seat on the county commission board earlier this year but was narrowly defeated during the March Republican primary election. A little more than three months removed from his election defeat, Travis is alleging that his opponents who supported efforts to bring casinos to North Carolina smeared his reputation during the primary.

Rockingham North Carolina casinos Craig Travis
Rockingham County Manager Lance Metzler (left) presents Commissioner Craig Travis with a certificate of recognition for his 12 years of service as a Rockingham County commissioner on Dec. 7, 2022. Travis is suing three current commissioners on allegations that they levied false attacks against him during his 2024 campaign to return to the board. (Image: Rockingham County)

Travis departed the Rockingham Board of County Commissioners in December 2022 following three four-year terms. The Republican opted to return to local politics last year after a scandal rocked the Rockingham government over allegations of backroom dealings to designate the county as a commercial casino resort host location.

Travis alleges in a state lawsuit that he was attacked by casino proponents and dark money interests in ways that exceed what’s protected by the First Amendment.

His complaint claims that his opponents retaliated against him for exposing the handshake dealings Commissioner Kevin Berger and two other commissioners engaged in with a Maryland-based casino operator to bring a Las Vegas-style resort to the rural county.

Casino Accusations

Berger’s father, North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), tried to legalize casinos in Rockingham, Anson, and Nash counties in 2023 by tacking on a provision to the state’s budget bill. It was later revealed that Phil Berger had negotiated a deal that would have provided The Cordish Companies, which operates Live!-branded casinos in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and soon, Louisiana, to develop each of the three North Carolina casinos.

Travis and others opposed to the casino push produced evidence that included the Rockingham Commissioners traveling to Maryland where they checked out Cordish’s Live! Casino & Hotel Maryland near the BWI airport. State campaign finance records also showed that Cordish was pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the Bergers’ — and other pro-gaming lawmakers’ — 2024 state and county campaigns.

Rockingham is politically red. The March 2024 GOP commissioners’ primary is essentially the general election, as the five-person board has long been controlled by Republicans.

The March 5 primary asked county Republicans to select three candidates. After a recount, Travis finished fourth, three votes shy of Commissioner Kevin Berger. Commissioner Mark Richardson finished second to retain his seat, and newcomer Jeff Kallahm came out on top.

Commissioner Don Powell finished sixth and will officially lose his seat after the November 2024 general election and his successors are sworn in the following month. County Board Chair Charlie Hall, III, and Commissioner Houston Barrow weren’t up for reelection.

Smear Campaign

Travis’ lawsuit is seeking damages over $100K, and says the younger Berger and casino lobbyists colluded to discredit his campaign. His attorneys say the fake attack ads included falsehoods like Travis deflating the tires of his opponents and lifting campaign signs of his foes.

The false statements made about Mr. Travis in the false attack ads, Facebook posts, email, and other communications constitute more than the mere vituperation and name calling that is characteristic of political campaigns and protected by the First Amendment,” the lawsuit alleges. “These false statements were made with actual malice and intended to harm Mr. Travis’ reputation in Rockingham County by lowering Mr. Travis in the estimation of potential voters in the 2024 Board of Commissioners election and deterring others from supporting his campaign.”

Along with Kevin Berger, Travis’ lawsuit names Commissioners Richardson and Powell as defendants.