Two federal agencies are not releasing funds for the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians because three groups have claimed tribal leadership, and it's unclear who is in charge.
In separate letters to the tribe, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency said they are waiting for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to identify the tribal leadership before releasing money used to assist tribal members with housing needs and rancheria pollution protection.
HUD is freezing almost $3 million in funds for safe housing, rental and ownership assistance and building repairs, according to agency officials.
"HUD doesn't want to hold this funding from the tribe, however, we must be responsible for funds and ensure a recognized tribal government is making the decisions for all the members and spending the funds on only eligible activities," said Gene Gibson, a San Francisco-based spokeswoman for the agency.
The EPA's July 25 letter stated that the "tribe's functioning government is in question." The agency delayed grants totaling about $318,000 that are designated for the tribe this year, federal officials said. The grants would fund a rancheria office for environmental protection, a water quality program, pollution control from water runoff and air monitoring.
"EPA will withhold all payments to the tribe until written confirmation is received from (Department of the Interior) that it recognizes a tribal governing body for the Picayune Rancheria," the agency's letter said.
The money is being held up because of continuing discord among tribal factions led by Nancy Ayala, Reggie Lewis and Morris Reid. Reid's faction filed an appeal to the 2011 election that was dismissed by a federal board.
In May, the BIA recognized the December 2012 election; members of the Lewis and Ayala factions were identified as the tribe's leadership.
Ayala then took over in February after she declared a referendum had enough signatures to change the tribal council membership. Lewis claims the referendum was unconstitutional because it had 14 signatures but needed about 250.
The two sides have been ordered by a New York state judge to approve payments for tribal contractors and the tribe's casino bond, which requires $12 million payments twice each year.
Meanwhile, the tribe's leadership is under review by the Interior Department's Board of Indian Appeals.
The tribal squabble is costing the Picayune Rancheria dearly, said a spokesman for the Ayala faction.
"By creating conflict, sowing confusion and stopping at nothing in their various sabotage campaigns, Reggie Lewis ... and Morris Reid have cost our tribe hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money, at least temporarily, while the EPA and HUD sort out the confusion these rogue factions have created," David Leibowitz said.
Richard Verri, a lawyer for the Lewis group, said the federal agencies are correct to withhold the money until the tribe's leadership is sorted out.
"The (agencies) are saying, 'We don't know what you're doing with your tribal government and it's not our business,' " he said.
But they must know who is in charge, Verri said.
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