LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The Arkansas Lottery has fired the last of three top officials brought in to launch the games two years ago, and the lottery commission's chairwoman called the move an opportunity for change.
Ernestine Middleton, the lottery vice president for administration, was fired Wednesday — two days after the resignations of embattled director Ernie Passailaigue and another vice president, David Barden. Passailaigue announced last month he would be leaving, but Barden and Middleton had said they wanted to keep their jobs.
Passailaigue, the former director of South Carolina's lottery, brought Middleton and Barden with him to start the Arkansas games, which have funded more than 60,000 scholarships over the last two years. But the trio's work was often overshadowed by a series of problems and complaints about how the games were managed.
"At this time, we're moving forward," said lottery chief legal counsel Bishop Woosley, who confirmed Middleton's firing to The Associated Press. "We feel like we're prepared to do whatever it is to continue to operate the lottery."
Woosley said Interim director Julie Baldridge fired Middleton, who won't receive a severance payment or any benefits besides salary accrued before Wednesday. Baldridge referred questions to Woosley, who declined to comment on why Middleton was fired.
Lottery Commission Chairwoman Dianne Lamberth also declined to provide details, saying she respected and accepted Baldridge's decision. Lamberth said it was "normal to be concerned" by the loss of leadership, "but it is also important to remember that with change comes opportunity."
Middleton did not return phone messages left at her Little Rock home.
Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2008 that allowed the state to sell lottery tickets to raise money for college scholarships. Lawmakers and commissioners have praised Passailaigue for the quick startup of the lottery, but he faced scrutiny about the games' management.
A legislative audit last year revealed the lottery was unable to provide year-end financial statements in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles. The agency also could not provide documentation for lodging costs and other travel.
It was revealed last month that the lottery owed nearly $100,000 to the Internal Revenue Service in penalties and interest for late deposits. The lottery has appealed to the IRS to waive the penalties.
Passailaigue also took criticism for his salary of more than $324,000. Barden and Middleton both made about $225,000.
Lamberth and lawmakers have said they expect Passailaigue's successor will receive a lower salary.
Democratic Rep. Barry Hyde of North Little Rock, a member of the Arkansas Lottery Commission Legislative Oversight Committee, said he was concerned that all three departed so quickly, especially if it takes several months to replace Passailaigue. The lottery relies more heavily on its top managers than most state agencies, Hyde said.
"This is a half-a-billion a year retail operation that was specifically designed and set up as much like a private enterprise as state law allows," he said in an interview. "About the last thing in the world I would want to do is to lose all three of my top managers in such a short time."
Lamberth would not say when the lottery commission expects to hire a director.
"I am prepared to take as long as necessary to ensure the right person is selected for the job," she said.