MODESTO, Calif. (CN) - Troubles mount for the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, as a controlling faction took a local bank to court to try to wrest millions in casino revenue from other factions.
The tribe sued Tri Counties Bank and its Modesto branch manager Jessica Parson in Stanislaus County Superior Court, seeking injunctive and declaratory relief and a temporary restraining order to keep the money in the bank - for now.
At the heart of the dispute is the lucrative Chukchansi Gold Casino and Resort, in the Madera County town of Coarsegold between Fresno and Yosemite National Park. The casino opened in 2003 and boasts 56,000 square feet of gaming space and 400 hotel rooms.
Bad blood within the tribe goes back long before the casino. A federal class action restored the Picayune Rancheria's tribal status - stripped by the California Rancheria of 1958 - and the Bureau of Indian Affairs worked with two families to create a tribal government.
But those families, the Wyatts and the Ramirezes, became locked in a bitter feud for control of the tribe. The Wyatt descendants eventually gained control and adopted a constitution in 1988, but persistent skirmishes boiled over in 2011 when the tribal council fractured into three factions - each claiming its leader to be the chairman.
Madera County Sheriff John Anderson sued the tribe and the Lewis faction in October, after faction leaders set up their own court and slapped Anderson with a restraining order to keep him from entering tribal land. A federal judge had given the sheriff's department law-enforcement jurisdiction over the rancheria as part of a settlement over property taxes in 2007.
In the new lawsuit on Tuesday, the rancheria and its economic development agency, led by the Lewis faction, accused another group - the Ayala faction - of taking millions in casino revenue and depositing it in an account with defendant Tri Counties Bank.
The tribe claims the Ayala faction's actions violate a New York court order to use a Rabobank account, so the tribe's creditors will be paid as part of a debt restructuring deal.
The Ayala faction managed this through an illegal takeover of the tribe this year, according to the Lewis faction.
"Nancy Ayala accepted an unconstitutional referendum signed by a mere 46 tribal members," the Lewis-led tribe says in its complaint. "The petition stated that the 14 signatures constituted 30 percent of the tribe's membership, as required under the tribe's constitution, and that an 'independent audit' had purportedly revealed that there were only 46 members of the tribe.
"Ayala illegally and unilaterally approved the 'referendum' which purportedly disenrolled over 850 tribal members, thereby fundamentally and drastically changing the makeup of the general council," the tribe claims. "She then removed all members of the duly elected tribal council, except herself, and appointed her supporters and family members to the council."
Ayala then took control of tribal government buildings and the casino, using "known gang members and convicted criminals" to police the place, according to the Lewis faction's lawsuit.
Pursuant to the tribal constitution, the tribe then hired the nonprofit Indian Dispute Resolution Services to settle the quarrel. The company held three-month-long tribal elections, at which the Lewis faction garnered 55 percent of the full tribal vote.