Former NC Commissioner Files Lawsuit Alleging Libel And Conspiracy In Casino Controversy

Erik Gibbs

Craig Travis, a former commissioner for Rockingham County, N.C., has filed a libel lawsuit against current Commissioner Kevin Berger and several other political figures in the state. The lawsuit alleges a conspiracy involving state lawmakers and local leaders to secure a casino in Stokesdale, N.C., ultimately leading to Travis’ electoral defeat.

The lawsuit names three county commissioners, including Berger, Commissioner Don Powell and GOP Chairwoman Diane Parnell, and three political organizations as defendants. They are accused of making false statements that harmed Travis’ election campaign.

The suit details how Travis campaigned against the pro-casino measures supported by the incumbent commissioners, which were opposed by most Rockingham County residents. According to the lawsuit, the defendants discredited Travis through defamatory statements during the 2024 primary election. The campaign against him was allegedly financed by a Virginia-based dark money organization that spent tens of thousands of dollars opposing his campaign.

The lawsuit also reveals legislative maneuvers surrounding the casino issue. A bill to legalize casinos, initially tied to Medicaid expansion, was eventually separated and delayed in the legislative session. In a controversial move, commissioners removed two Planning Board members who opposed the casino project, replacing one with Parnell’s husband.

Initially, election results on March 5 showed Travis leading Berger by seven votes. However, after adding provisional and absentee ballots, Berger pulled ahead by three votes, a lead confirmed by a recount. Travis attributes his loss to a series of attack ads targeting his anti-casino stance. The lawsuit meticulously details those attacks, including edited TV interviews and false accusations, all aimed at damaging Travis’ reputation.

Represented by Alicia Jurney of Smith Debnam Law, Travis is seeking over $100,000 in damages.

PACs at heart of smear campaign

The lawsuit traces the controversy back to August 2021, with the formation of NC Development Holdings, LLC in Delaware. The company, led by Joseph Weinberg of Cordish Gaming Group, made significant campaign contributions to Republican lawmakers, including Senate leader Phil Berger, House Majority Leader John Bell, and Representative Jason Saine. Saine, a long-time gambling supporter, allegedly used the donations to push for legalizing sports betting and casinos in North Carolina.

The false statements made about Mr. Travis in the False Attack Ads, Facebook posts, email, and other communications described herein constitute more than the mere vituperation and name calling (sic) that is characteristic of political campaigns and protected by the First Amendment. These false statements were made with actual malice and intended to harm Mr. Travis’s 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.

Former Rockingham County Commissioner Craig Travis’ lawsuit

After receiving Cordish’s donation, Saine commissioned Spectrum Gaming Group to produce a report supporting the legalization of casinos in the state, according to the News-Observer. The report, published in March 2023, proposed operating casinos in Anson, Nash, and Rockingham counties.

Travis alleges the commissioners retaliated against him for exposing their casino dealings, using political organizations like the North Carolina Conservatives Fund (and its successors) and GOPAC to fund attack ads against him. These organizations, often supported by undisclosed donations, launched a series of defamatory campaigns, falsely accusing Travis of various misdeeds.

Saine denied the lawsuit’s allegations, stating he was unaware of Weinberg’s donation and emphasizing his independent support for gambling legalization.

Surprise win for Cordish

The lawsuit claims that by spring 2023, Cordish was negotiating with key officials. Among these were Senate leader Berger, his son, and other Rockingham County officials. NC Development Holdings hired lobbyists, including Zach Almond of The Differentiators, a firm with ties to Berger’s former staff.

Cordish applied to rezone 200 acres in Stokesdale for a casino, leading to changes in county planning policies to facilitate the project. In June 2023, county commissioners and officials allegedly met with Cordish’s team in Maryland without public notice. Rockingham County Attorney Clyde Albright later confirmed the meeting.

Despite public opposition, the Planning Board denied Cordish’s rezoning request on July 10, 2023. However, on August 21, the commissioners unanimously approved it, despite significant public attendance and opposition at the meeting.