Chaos Continues at Contested Tribal Casino

           FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – Four percent of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians claim in court that they are the only true members of the tribe, and that others are violating a judge’s order by preparing to reopen the tribe’s casino.
     The motion was filed Monday on behalf of the tribe’s “distributees,” who say they are the only legitimately enrolled members of the Rancheria.
     “All the remaining factions, who represent nearly 96 percent of the tribe’s enrollees who have caused nearly all of the political upheaval at the tribe, are not qualified for membership in the tribe presently, as absolutely no ‘special relationship’ with the tribe has ever been established,” the distributees say .
     The distributees claims that the 2010 interim tribal council has been holding activities at the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino in recent months – including hosting a job fair, executing management agreements and posting security guards – even though federal and state officials have not cleared such work.
     The casino in California’s Central Valley has been closed since October 2014, after members of the tribal police force representing the then-Tex McDonald faction temporarily overtook the then-Reggie Lewis/Nancy Ayala faction to retrieve financial records linked to audits that were overdue to the federal government.
     Finding the safety of patrons and workers to be at issue, U.S. District Judge Lawrence O’Neill issued an order that month creating a weapon-free buffer around the casino and prohibiting operation of the casino.
     The National Indian Gaming Commission and state attorney also ordered the casino closed.
     Because O’Neill’s injunction has not been lifted, the work at the casino violates the court order, the distributees say.
     “These activities have caused a heightened tension between the governing factions and could or may lead to further hostility among tribal members who support differing factions,” they say.
     The interim council overseeing the work at the casino was allowed by the government only to distribute funds to tribal members, but has no authority to reopen the casino, the distributees say.
     They also claim that the tribal council election on Oct. 3 – in which the Morris Reid faction won a sweep of seven seats – was illegal.
     Luke Davis, chairman of the distributees’ own tribal council, said in court documents that nontribal members were allowed to vote in the election while qualifying members were not allowed to get a ballot.
     In addition, certain candidates were told that if they dropped out of the election they would be given a job on the Tribal Gaming Commission, he said.
     “These antics by certain corrupt individuals has been the cause of the tribe not being able to move forward and will continue, if these individuals who are not qualified for membership and have been sanctioned are allowed to take part in tribal affairs and their sanctions should not be ignored by the federal government,” Davis said.
     The distributees ask the court to hold the 2010 interim tribal council in contempt for violating the preliminary injunction.
     Reggie Lewis, head of another faction, has also stated his intent to appeal the election results. He claims the process was tainted because members disenrolled between 2010 and 2012 were allowed to vote.
     Meanwhile, another former tribal council member saw his lawsuit against the government thrown out on Wednesday .
     Patrick Hammond III was elected to the council in 2008 and re-elected in 2010. He claimed in his lawsuit that the council “unethically and unconstitutionally” expelled him in 2011 for something for which he had already been found innocent.
     During the factional fight over tribal leadership, the Pacific Regional Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided it would conduct business with the 2010 council, but did not list Hammond among its members.
     Hammond said he was shocked to be excluded and unsuccessfully sought help from the Secretary of the Interior and the Interior Board of Indian Appeals. His lawsuit accused them of violating due process, the Indian Civil Rights Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
     U.S. District Judge William Shubb ruled that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear Hammond’s claims.
     “A plaintiff cannot simply sue the federal government in an attempt to avoid tribal immunity with respect to intra-tribal affairs. The tribal council removed plaintiff from his leadership position and plaintiff’s avenue to challenge that action remains with the tribe,” Shubb said.
     
     The National Indian Gaming Commision said that a stable government is among the most important factors that would impact federal officials’ decision on whether anot to enter into a settlement agreement for reopening the casino.
     In a letter sent to the interim tribal council last month, the commission expressed concerns after the tribe’s three gaming commissioners and gaming commission executive director resigned over what was described as violations of the tribe’s gaming ordinance governing hiring and firing.
     “(T)he tribal council’s willingness to violate its own tribal gaming laws, particularly while negotiating the settlement of existing National Indian Gaming Commission enforcement actions, is alarming. These concerns have direct impact on the division of compliance’s recommendation to the chairman on whether a settlement agreement should be entered into with the tribe,” Douglas Hatfield, director of compliance, said in the letter.
     The casino does not yet have federal or state approval to open the casino.

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