by Max Brantley
Nancy Todd alerted me that the group pushing a casino amendment initiative had filed a batch of papers with the state Ethics Commission today. I've been writing about the absence of reports on her group's effort to gather signatures for an amendment to permit four unregulated casinos operated under her name.
The filings included organizational papers for two new ballot question organizations and they report the money supporting the campaign flows primarily from two investment companies in Missouri ($195,000):
* The Nancy Todd Poker Palace and Entertainment Venues LLC. It shows three people with Little Rock office addresses as leaders — Bob Womack, director; Larry Weis, officer, and Dianne Dalton as treasurer. Todd and Jim Thompson are also members of the committee, whose mission is to qualify and pass the amendment.
The commitee reported raising $27,600 — $20,000 from SKAP Investments of Branson, Mo., and $7,500 from Arkansas Development I LLC — in May. It spent about $3,700 on advertising and signature gathering.
* Also filed was paperwork for Arkansas Development I LLC. It has the same officers and purpose as the Nancy Todd Poker Palace filing.
This group reported (in a belated report on activities in March) raising $175,000 and spending about $45,000. All the money came from Evergreen Investments of Lebanon, Mo. In March, it spent more than $23,000 with the Williams and Anderson law firm in Little Rock and more than $21,000 paying Todd for consulting and expenses.
For April, the group reported spending another $58,753 — primarily for more Williams and Anderson fees and more payments to Todd.
In May, the group spent another $49,130, leaving about $29,000 of the original money on hand. More than $40,000 went to Todd.
The filings don't show recent expenditures for canvassers, except those on the Poker Palace May report, though the canvassers continue to work, according to multiple reports. I've also heard reports of robocalls and and radio advertising. The batch of late filings would seem tacitly to concede the obvious, that reports didn't begin as law requires with spending of $500.
Registered agent for SKAP Investments is Marc Williams of Branson. He, Todd confirms, is also CFO of HCW LLC, a development firm whose projects have included Branson Landing and hotels in that area. He was out of the office this afternoon. Evergreen Investments is headed by Stephen Plaster, and the firm is also an investor in Branson Landing. Todd said they are partners in the casino effort. Evergreen's holdings were amassed by Plaster's father, the late Robert Plaster, a former utility company chief (Empire Gas) who became well-known for philanthropy in the region, including, perhaps ironically in this context, in support of a Baptist college. I've left a message for him.
Todd also filed a report showing no activity in either fund-raising or expenditures by the organization for which she'd originally filed papers, Arkansas Counts.
The casino amendment would allow casinos in Pulaski, Miller, Crittenden and Franklin counties and prohibit legislative oversight. Amendments require more signatures than initiated act. The group must obtain 78,133 signatures of registered voters by July 6. Initiated acts need 62,507.
UPDATE FOLLOWS AFTER A LATE-AFTERNOON PHONE INTERVIEW WITH TODD:
Todd confirms that the Branson investors are the major backers and have hired her to run the campaign. She said she's been involved in dozens of political and casino campaigns over the years, including successful casino developments from Mississippi to Pennsylvania.
The Branson investors are willing to make a "high-risk" investment on winning approval of a casino amendment in hopes of having a part of the development of the properties with not just casinos, but hotels, other entertainment venues, parking decks and the like. She said the group has had no contact, much less deals, with major casino operators and would not until the amendment passes. But she concedes readily the idea for the group to win licenses that would then become very valuable to someone with expertise in the business. Her only equity interest is to retain the naming rights to a poker room in the Pulaski County casino, which presumably would operate under the name of a major casino operator. She is a professional poker player herself.
Todd takes exception strenuously to my characterization that the amendment would produce an unregulated group of casinos. She contends that case law gives the legislature the power to enact anything not strictly prohibited by the amendment. She said that means it could set up a regulatory commission for casino licensing. She has some high-priced legal talent as advisers, so we'll just have to see. The amendment ballot title says, however: "PROHIBITING THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY AND ANY POLITICAL SUBDIVISION OF THE STATE FROM ENACTING ANY LEGISLATION, RULES OR REGULATIONS REGARDING CASINO GAMING." That's a fairly broad prohibition.
In her view, this pertains only to the games offered at casinos. The amendment also sets the tax rate and prohibits the legislature from appropriating the money, instead designating percentage allotments to a variety of education, health and other programs.
Todd said future reports were to be consolidated under the Arkansas Counts organization. She said she'd had a misunderstanding about required filing and said she now understood that reports should have been filed earlier. She blamed this on miscommunication among various parties. She said she expected to be called down by the Ethics Commission on the late filings and said she was prepared to pay any fine that might be assessed.
"I'm not big on the blame game," she said. "It bears my name and I take responsibility."
She said she'd known her Branson partners since the late 1990s, but hadn't thought the time was right to try a campaign in Arkansas until this year. She said she understood she faced tough opposition from Oaklawn Park and Southland Park, both of which operate casinos. "That's politics," she said. She said even if she's successful another petitioner could come in two years with new competition or even a proposal to overturn the whole thing.
She said she doesn't believe the theory of an aversion to casino gambling among Arkansas voters. She said difficulties here are more about the "arduous" petition process, "designed for failure."
She said she's confident she'll get the needed signatures, with more than 13,000 gathered in Pulaski County.
By the way: Jim Thompson is a Branson service station owner, not the Jim Thompson who was once a political consultant here. Dianne Dalton is a former phone company executive, not Diane Bray, the former beer wholesale who joined a casino push some years ago and married former City Manager Tom Dalton.