USA Dragged Into Indian Casino Fight

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – A former councilman for the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, which has been roiled by violence in a fight over casino revenue, sued the Secretary of the Interior for upholding his ouster from the Tribal Council.
     Patrick Hammond III was elected to the Tribal Council in 2008 and re-elected in 2010. He claims that the council “unethically and unconstitutionally” expelled him in 2011 for something for which he had already been found innocent.
     It also tried, unsuccessfully, to evict him from his tribal housing unit through state court, Hammond says in his March 11 federal complaint.
     Around the same time, the tribal council fractured into three factions, each claiming its leader to be the chairman.
     In February 2013, one of the faction leaders, Nancy Ayala, tried to disenroll hundreds of tribal members . Later that year, the tribal court recognized the Ayala faction as the lawful governing body of the tribe.
     Many court battles ensued and several violent incidents required intervention by the Madera County Sheriff.
     “The dispute over the tribe’s leadership has led to multiple financial hardships and many federal agencies have been unable to determine with whom to conduct business, causing essential tribal programs that are funded by the federal government to cease operation,” Hammond says in his lawsuit.
     In February 2013, defendant Amy Dutschke, regional director of the Pacific Regional Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, decided her office would conduct business with the last uncontested Tribal Council, which was elected in December 2010, but did not list Hammond among the members of this council.
     “The only explanation given by the Regional Director is a footnote reference: The Record reflects that Nokomis Hernandez was appointed by the Tribal Council to replace Patrick Hammond, III,” the complaint states.
     Hammond says he was “shocked” to be excluded from the council.
     Despite appeals from Hammond and members of the factions, the defendant Interior Board of Indian Appeals (IBIA) issued its decision on Feb. 9 this year, making Dutschke’s decision effective immediately.
     Hammond claims the IBIA sustained his exclusion from the council without providing any reasoning or legal basis to supports its decision. He asked the Federal Court to reinstate him.
     The troubles for the tribe and its once-lucrative gaming hall are not over.
     Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino remains closed. It will be up to the National Indian Gaming Commission, which closed the casino last year, to decide whether to back the IBIA’s decision and recognize the 2010 council as legitimate, and whether to allow it to re-open the casino.
     Meanwhile, the factions continue to bicker over leadership and whether the disenrolled members should be allowed to vote in a new election scheduled for early May.
     Hammond is represented by Jeff Reich, of Fresno.

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