Judge Wades no Further Into Tribal Fight

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge Tuesday refused to evict a faction of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians from tribal government buildings, as feuding factions continue to fight over the tribe’s casino.
     The Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in California’s Central Valley has been closed since October 2014, after a violent raid on the casino office by one of three tribal factions, all of whom claim to be in charge.
     U.S. District Judge Lawrence O’Neill that month issued an order creating a weapons-free buffer around the casino and nearby properties, and prohibiting operation of the casino.
     O’Neill extended the order to keep the sides separated, and to allow the tribe to pay its bills and monthly stipends to tribal members.
     The Bureau of Indian Affairs recognized and the Department of Interior Board of Indian Appeals in February affirmed the Lewis faction – headed by Reggie Lewis – as the interim council until an election can take place, scheduled for Oct. 3.
     Recognition allowed the Lewis council to receive federal grants to be administered through the Environmental Protection Agency and Housing and Urban Development.
     After recognition, the Lewis council – which was the tribal council from 2010 – began to negotiate with the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) to facilitate reopening of the Chukchansi Casino.
     The Lewis council says that a major sticking point with the NIGC is that the McDonald faction continues to occupy tribal office buildings across from the casino.
     The state has indicated that it is concerned that a group of people lacking federal recognition are occupying this modular complex, Judge O’Neill said.
     In an attempt to assuage the NIGC and the state of its public safety concerns, the Lewis council issued a public safety protocol ordering “the immediate clearing of all persons located in and around the Tribe’s Modular Complex.”
     The Lewis council then tried to persuade the McDonald faction to vacate the complex, to no avail. The Lewis council says the McDonald faction ignored a notice to vacate and suggested to the NIGC and the state that they have no intention of leaving.
     The McDonald faction – no longer actually headed by Tex McDonald, who pleaded guilty to false imprisonment stemming from the armed takeover of the casino and was released from jail in early July – still claims that they are the tribal council.
     Because the McDonald faction refuses to leave the complex, the Lewis faction asked Judge O’Neill to modify his injunction to clarify that nobody is allowed to occupy the tribal government buildings until it is established that such occupation would not create a public safety hazard.
     O’Neill refused.
     “The request is not for a clarification, but rather is for a dramatic escalation of this court’s involvement in the business and operation of the casino,” O’Neill wrote. “They make this request without providing any authority, jurisdictional or otherwise, to support such an intervention by this Court.”
     O’Neill issued his initial injunction because he found that the armed conflict in October created a significant danger to public health and safety, and that the factions’ inability to resolve their dispute indicated that the underlying impetus for the armed conflict had not dissipated.
     The Lewis council’s request to expand the order is “something entirely different and far more interventionist” than the original injunction, the judge found.
     The council is asking the court to enforce its eviction notice, which would transform noncompliance by the McDonald faction into a violation of a federal court order, O’Neill said.
     “The court can identify absolutely no authority to support such an exercise of its jurisdiction,” the judge said, denying the Lewis Council’s request.
     The Lewis council said Monday that the Chukchansi Economic Development Authority expects to complete an agreement with the NIGC soon, which could reopen the casino before the end of the year.
     The Economic Development Authority, which oversees the casino, also entered into a deal with some of the tribe’s lenders that will allow it to raise $35 million, at 12 percent interest, to reopen the gambling palace.
     “These are just the first steps on our journey to provide our tribal members with opportunity and economic stability that will pave the way to self-sufficiency for generations,” Reggie Lewis said. “We are very excited to have secured world-class partners to assist us in achieving our goals.”
     But in addition to reaching an agreement with the NIGC and securing the funding, the tribe will have to settle with other state and federal agencies and reach an agreement with Madera County.
     The Madera County Board of Supervisors sent a letter to the tribe last week stating that it was unwilling to sign an agreement that will help the tribe reopen the casino until the issue of tribal governance has been resolved.
     “No nontribal entity, whether it be federal, state or local, can authoritatively determine who the governing body of the Chukchansi tribe is. Only the tribe can do that,” said the county letter, from Chairman David Rogers. “Until such time the tribe itself agrees on which council or other group constitutes its legal governing body, Madera County will not attempt to do so.”
     The county rejected a settlement offer that would have established police and fire services with monthly payments from the tribe of $112,000, a $1 million annual grant to nonprofits, a $350,000 payment upon lifting of the federal court that closed the casino, and monthly payments to pay off remaining debt to the county at 4 percent interest.

%d bloggers like this: