Pope County, Arkansas office holders allegedly participated in improper “back door meetings and deals” on a gaming license before throwing their support to Cherokee Nation Businesses, a newspaper report claims.
In a letter obtained by the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, special prosecutor Jason Barrett claims Ben Cross, a Pope County judge, and some quorum court members — the state’s regional bodies that govern a county — repeatedly violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
There were at least three illegal meetings held by local officials during 2019, Barrett claims. Despite the allegation, Barrett said it is not “prudent or possible at this time” to file charges against the officials.
Barrett made the recommendation in the three-page letter sent to Fifth Judicial Circuit Judge Bill Pearson of Clarksville. The findings came “after weeks of interviews and collecting evidence,” the letter adds.
“It may very well be that the quorum court and county judge have reached the best decision for Pope County. But due to their system of governing in secret, some people will always question their motives and this result,” Barrett says in the letter.
Judge Cross Rejects Allegations
Under Arkansas law, quorum court meetings are open to the public, and the public must have at least two hours notice of any special meetings, Barrett said. Violating the FOIA can lead to a $500 fine and/or spending up to 30 days in jail, Barrett adds.
But in a statement quoted by the Democrat-Gazette, Cross disputed several of the “conclusions, assumptions, and innuendo” made in the letter.
I remain confident in our position that there was absolutely no intent to violate the Arkansas FOIA rules, and wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Barrett in his statement, ‘it is my belief that the further pursuit of the FOIA Violation would not meet the goals of justice which I have been tasked to serve,’” Cross was quoted.
The letter comes as a result of one local resident, Hans Stiritz, filing a FOIA complaint with Pope County Prosecuting Attorney Jeff Phillips last August. Stiritz represents Concerned Citizens of Pope County, which opposes the casino.
“While we’re disappointed that the prosecutor has decided not to pursue criminal charges, we’re gratified that he nonetheless concluded that FOIA violations did occur,” Stiritz told the newspaper upon hearing about the prosecutor’s letter. “Further, his conclusions that ‘back door meetings and deals’ took place should call into question the entire process that led to the Quorum Court’s endorsement of the Cherokee proposal and the repeal of the citizens’ county ordinance.”
In October, Judge Pearson concluded that the FOIA was not violated and officials can sometimes meet in private, the newspaper report said.
In response, Chuck Garrett, CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses, told the Democrat-Gazette Pope County Quorum Court vetting on the license process was “thorough and transparent.”
Proposed Casino Blocked by Court Ruling
Earlier this month, the Pope County planned gaming operation was temporarily blocked after another local judge approved a restraining order. The ruling prevents the Arkansas Racing Commission from issuing a casino license or considering applications.
The Pope County gaming license is the fourth and final commercial casino permit in Arkansas.