Feds OK Reopening of Contested Tribal Casino

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – The National Indian Gaming Commission reached a settlement with the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, marking a huge step forward in the tribe’s quest to reopen its once-lucrative casino.
     The commission agreed on Monday to allow Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino to reopen, which California Attorney General Kamala Harris will not oppose.
     Chukchansi casino was officially closed on Oct. 10, 2014, one day after a violent raid on the casino office by one of three competing tribal factions.
     The commission issued a notice of violation and temporary closure order for all gaming activity at the casino, finding that the tribe was operating the facility in a manner that threatened public health and safety.
     The tribe also failed to submit annual independent audits, financial statements, and agreed-upon procedure reports for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, according to the commission.
     Monday’s agreement between the commission and the tribe resolves those issues and allows the tribe to reopen the facility under certain conditions. The tribe must pay a fine of $19.8 million, a portion of which will be suspended as long as the tribe adheres to the settlement.
     “This is an important and very good day for our tribe,” tribal chairwoman Claudia Gonzales said. “Our new Tribal Council promised our members we would act swiftly to reopen the casino, get our employees back to work and start to rebuild our tribe’s financial and cultural strength, and this agreement is an important step towards those goals.”
     The agreement details both pre-opening and post-opening conditions the tribe must meet to ensure the safety and health of patrons and employees and compliance with commission audit regulations, including a requirement that the commission conduct a full internal control assessment within nine months of reopening.
     If anything happens to threaten the health and safety of the facility, its patrons and employees, the closure orders will be immediately reinstated and the suspended fine will be due, the commission said.
     The tribe plans to announce the reopening date of the casino in the coming days, but is already working on preparations.
     “We are pleased to be able to put more than 1,000 members of our community back to work,” tribal councilmember Nakomis Hernandez said. “The financial impacts of the reopening will benefit Madera County, the region and our tribal members significantly.”
     Late last month, Madera County Board of Supervisors ratified a memorandum of understanding between the tribe and the county meant to resolve public safety issues. The memorandum states that the county will provide an officer at the casino, paid for by the tribe, for the first six months after it reopens in addition to an officer the casino already employs full-time.
     U.S. District Judge Lawrence O’Neill must still approve the reopening of the casino, since last year he issued a preliminary injunction enjoining the tribe from operating the casino. The injunction provides that the prohibition on operating the casino would no longer be in effect if the commission lifted its own closure order and the state did not object to the reopening.
     The tribe and state filed an ex parte motion with the court on Monday stating that they have entered into a settlement agreement under which the state will not object to reopening the casino.
     However, discord between tribal factions could still cause potential problems.
     In 2014, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs regional director named the members of the 2010 tribal council as the group the federal government would recognize for grants to help tribal members. The Department of Interior’s Board of Indian Appeals recognized the same council earlier this year.
     The federal government ordered the tribe to hold an election allowing all adult members to run for office. Although a council was elected on Oct. 3, a group of tribal members known as the “distributees” – who claim to be the original founders of the tribe – oppose the leadership of the newly elected council and the reopening of the casino.
     The distributees object “to the entry of any order or judgment that would via some unknown federal statutory provision recognize the illegally elected Oct. 3, 2015 Tribal Council as the permanent governing body of the tribe with the authority to open and operate the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino,” they said in a response filed in federal court on Monday.
     “It is the opinion of the distributees, who are the only duly enrolled members of the tribe, that the underlying circumstances that led to the closure have not been rectified and consequently, there exists continuing conditions that would lead to hostility based upon the unresolved intra-tribal dispute,” the distributees said.

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