Feds name new tribal council to lead Chukchansi

The tribe's leadership has been in question after three factions split off.

The Fresno BeeFebruary 12, 2014 

CASINOS CHUKCHANSI

Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, near Coarsegold.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

The federal government, seeking to resolve a leadership quagmire with the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, has reset the tribal council to the members elected in 2010.

In a letter sent Tuesday night to tribal, local, state and federal officials, Amy Dutschke, the Sacramento-based regional director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said 2010 was the last year there was not a politically charged election.

"The situation at the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians has deteriorated to a point that recognition of a government is essential for the purpose of contracting ... and to prevent any further hiatus of this government-to-government relationship with the (tribe)," she wrote.

Dutschke's letter added: "The Bureau of Indian Affairs, Pacific Region, will conduct business, on an interim basis, with the last uncontested Tribal Council elected December 2010."

Membership on the 2010 council appears to tilt in favor of factions led by council members Morris Reid and Reggie Lewis.

But the council that has had control of the Coarsegold offices and casino isn't backing down and plans to appeal Dutschke's decision, their spokesman said Wednesday.

The council elected in 2010 included Chance Alberta, Nancy Ayala, Nokomis Hernandez, Dora Jones, Lewis, Reid and Jennifer Stanley.

Members of that group later split off into three separate factions, which led to controversial elections and a near-riot at the business complex.

In 2011, Lewis, Ayala and their supporters on the council backed tribal disenrollment, which -- along with the 2011 election -- led to a split in leadership. Reid and his supporters were elected because they opposed disenrollment, but the group never took their council seats.

In February 2012 Reid's faction holed up in the business complex, sparking violence and prompting a response from the Madera County Sheriff's Office and other law enforcement agencies.

In 2013 the board's makeup changed again after 14 supporters of the Ayala group signed a referendum that appeared to give authority to the Ayala faction to remove Lewis group members from the tribal council.

But the Lewis group said Ayala's action was unconstitutional. The group continued working as a council away from the rancheria and then joined forces with the Reid faction.

Meanwhile, confusion over who had been legally elected to the tribal council led financial institutions to freeze the tribe's funds, putting it at risk of going into default on loans taken out to build the casino resort.

The BIA's decision was a way to keep all factions involved in leadership, said Kenneth Hansen, a Fresno State associate professor in political science.

"I think there had been some calls for a unity council at one point that had everybody on it and this actually sounds like this is about as close as the BIA will come to finding one," he said. "I'm hopeful that now they will sit down and iron out whatever differences exist."

Madera County Sheriff John Anderson feels the same way.

He said Wednesday he was consulting with lawyers from the squabbling groups for a peaceful resolution. But deputies will go to the rancheria if violence breaks out again, he said.

Richard Verri, attorney for the Lewis faction, said he also is working with law enforcement and Madera County officials on a plan to return council members to the rancheria's offices and the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, which have both been overseen by the Ayala faction.

"There is a transition period," Verri said. "We are trying to negotiate a peaceful transition so the business of the tribe can continue without unnecessary disruption."

He said there are no plans to close the casino.

Because the tribal leadership is no longer uncertain, federal funding that was frozen last year by the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development will now be sent to the tribe, Verri said.

But David Leibowitz, spokesman for the opposing group, said the government's decision had nothing to do with operations at the rancheria. He said an appeal will be filed with the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, and Dutschke's decision is not final until a ruling is made on the appeal.

The BIA's interim decision is in place only until the tribe's leadership dispute is resolved and "in no way changes the leadership structure of the ruling tribal council," he said.

Leibowitz said the ruling covers only the government's contractual relationships and inter-government agreements with the tribe, but has no bearing on casino operations or other tribal business interests.

Ayala's group was recently beset by its own problems, which led to her suspension. She had sought "sedition" and "treason" charges against some tribal members who did not support her faction and signed letters saying members could be booted out.

Tex McDonald has been serving in her place, Leibowitz said. New council members were elected in December, after Ayala mailed out the controversial letters.

Council leaders declined to say what caused her suspension. Leibowitz said that faction's leaders do not intend to kick anyone out of the tribe -- except for a few in the competing Lewis council.

Ayala's allegations hinged on claims that some members wrongfully obtained money from the Lewis group, money that was "ripped off" from the tribe, Leibowitz said.

The Lewis group also alleges Ayala and her supporters stole money from the tribe. Verri said auditors will go into the casino and tribal complex as soon as possible to examine the tribe's finances.

The reporters can be reached at (559)441-6330, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or cgeorge@fresnobee.com.

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