Virtual Civil War Rages in Casino Tribe

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - Managers at the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold diverted more than $316,000 in revenue to an illegal faction after a leadership dispute that included acts of violence, according to a federal lawsuit and tribal statement.
     The Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, operators of the casino, have been disputed their tribal leadership since the December 2011 election, and three groups - led by council members Nancy Ayala, Reggie Lewis and Morris Reid - lay claim as representatives of the rightful council.
     In February 2013, Ayala attempted to disenroll hundreds of tribal members, then forced the other six members of the Tribal Council out of office and replaced them with an entirely new council consisting of her friends and family members, according to local media reports and the tribal website, chukchansitribe.net.
     She also took control of the casino, by installing a security and management team loyal to her, according to a tribe's website, checked this morning.
     The factions continued to battle and the situation deteriorated, so the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs stepped in on Feb. 11 this year. The BIA said it would conduct business on an interim basis with the last uncontested Tribal Council, which was elected in December 2010.
     That council consists of Lewis as the chairman, Nancy Ayala, Dora Jones, Chance Alberta, Jennifer Stanley, Morris Reid and Nokomis Hernandez.
     In the Feb. 11 letter sent to tribal, local, state and federal authorities, Amy Dutschke, the Sacramento-based regional director for the BIA, said that the level of conflict within the tribe "is extremely concerning." She cited a report in February 2012 that "an attempt to take over the Tribal Office by one of the factions led to violence, resulting in a stabbing of one individual, and requiring the Madera County Sheriff's Department to intervene. In February 2013 it was reported that a faction occupied the Tribal Office threatening violence with respect to anyone who attempted to remove the faction."
     The political dispute interfered with operations of the casino and led to multiple financial hardships, Dutschke said. Federal agencies were unable to determine who they should be conducting business with, causing some federally funded tribal programs to shut down.
     On Feb. 19, the BIA asked the Department of the Interior to make the BIA decision effective immediately, noting "concern that 'immediately following the Regional Director's issuance of [the United States Decision], counsel for the Ayala Faction communicated his concern that any attempt by the Tribal Council recognized I the [United States Decision] to resume control of the Tribal Officers and/or Casino could possibly result in murder,'" according to a lawsuit filed in federal court the same day. (The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians et al. vs. Giffen Tan, et al., paragraph 21.)
     That lawsuit was filed after the reinstated tribal council was notified on Feb. 13 by its depository bank that casino management had delivered two bags of cash containing $316,700 to an illegal faction led by Ted McDonald, claiming to be the Tribal Council, the Lewis-led council said in a chukchansitribe.net statement.
     Named as defendants in Picayune et al. vs. Tan et al. are Tan, Joyce Markle, Larry King and Ted Atkins, all part of the casino's management team.
     That Feb. 18 lawsuit states: "Defendants' past and presently ongoing conduct provide plaintiffs and this court with reason to believe that defendants will make additional distributions of Casino revenues in the very near future to entities or individuals who are not recognized by the United States as the Tribe. Such distributions are estimated to be more than $1,400,000.00 on a monthly basis, and, if issued to persons or entities not recognized by the United States as the Tribe, will violate the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the Tribe's Gaming Compact with the State of California, and the Tribe's Gaming Ordinance."
     The council claims that once the casino's assets have been disbursed they cannot be recovered, which will harm the 900-member tribe.
     "It is unfortunate that a small group of individuals continue to defy the will of an overwhelming majority of Tribal members and the recognition of the federal government," Lewis said in a statement on the tribal website. "There is only one Tribal Council recognized by the United States and stealing money from the Tribe will not be tolerated. Threatening violence for following the BIA's decision shows that the illegal faction is desperate, but the Tribal Council will follow the legal process as we always have done to ensure the smoothest transition possible."
     The tribe seeks an injunction preventing casino management from making any further disbursements to any person or entity other than the tribe recognized by the United States.
     The tribe is represented by Robert A. Rosette in Folsom.