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No Contempt Order in Tribal Civil War

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - One faction in the virtual civil war over casino revenue on the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians will not be held in contempt, though it allegedly disobeyed a federal judge's order by refusing to issue stipends to certain tribal members.

The Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in California's Central Valley has been closed since October 2014, after a violent raid of the casino's office by one of three tribal factions, all of whom claim to be in charge.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence O'Neill issued an order that month 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 allow the tribe to pay its bills and its monthly stipends to tribal members - including to members who had been disenrolled in recent years by one of the factions.

The Reid faction now claims that the Lewis/Ayala faction, which controlled the casino floor before the October conflict and retained at least some control of the finances afterward, violated the court's order by failing to send stipends to tribal members on the 2010 membership list who were later disenrolled.

The Lewis/Ayala faction claims that it did issue equal per-capita checks to every member on the 2010 membership roll, but withheld distribution of the checks to people who were ineligible to receive deductions after 2010, according to Judge O'Neill's Feb. 10 order denying the Reid faction's motion for an order to show cause.

The Lewis-Ayala faction claims that it was concerned that distributing the payments to people who might not be eligible members of the tribe could violate the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and tribal law.

The withheld checks are being held in escrow until the legal conflicts can be sorted out or until the allegedly ineligible individuals become active members of the tribe in good standing.

Although the Lewis/Ayala faction never sought leave from the court to modify the terms of the injunction to permit the escrow arrangement, O'Neill decided not to hold the faction in contempt, finding that the court "is without jurisdiction to resolve intra-Tribal disputes."

"The approach taken by the Lewis/Ayala faction is a reasonable one that preserves funds for all those listed on the 2010 membership list, while at the same time protects against the chance of improperly allocating per capita payments to individuals who may later be deemed in another forum ineligible fro such payments," O'Neill wrote in his 7-page order.

"The court has done everything it can do to avoid interfering in the ongoing tribal governance dispute while still fulfilling its obligations to protect public health and safety."

O'Neill also refused to find the Lewis/Ayala faction in contempt for issuing $1,000 stipends to tribal members who attended a Jan. 24 general council meeting - nearly $1 million in casino revenue.

The Lewis/Ayala faction claimed that the money was used in the ordinary course of business, so it was permitted under O'Neill's previous order.

O'Neill disagreed, finding that the faction showed "bad faith" because there appeared to be no justification for the faction's conclusion that the general council meeting expenses were made in the ordinary course of business.

However, the judge again found that the "misuse of funds by a tribal faction is beyond the jurisdiction of this court."

"The casino has been secured. The casino remains closed. The public cannot possibly be endangered unless and until the casino is reopened under continued hostilities. This court was forced to put its toe in the door when presented with an emergency situation, but it will not swing the door wide open and walk into an area where it is not permitted to tread," O'Neill said.

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