Restraining order request dismissed in Chukchansi money dispute

The Fresno BeeMarch 10, 2014 

A U.S. District Court judge in Fresno dismissed a restraining order request in the continuing battle for control of the Chukchansi tribe after one group accused a competing faction of taking $316,017 that should have gone into a casino bank account overseen by both sides.

Judge Anthony Ishii said in a ruling Friday that his court "does not have jurisdiction" over a restraining order filed by the Reggie Lewis faction, which said that money was illegally taken by the other faction led by Tex McDonald.

The Lewis group was seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the McDonald faction from moving money in ways the Lewis side claims violate a New York judge's ruling last year.

Ishii also said he does not view the Lewis group as rightful leaders of the tribe even though the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs last month recognized a 2010 council election that included Lewis and four allies to lead the tribe. That decision is pending an appeal by the McDonald group with the federal Interior Board of Indian Appeals.

Without an appeal ruling, the judge said, he will not trigger any change.

"This court has received no indication that the IBIA (appeals board) has actually come to a decision on the issue," Ishii wrote in his decision.

McDonald's group viewed Judge Ishii's dismissal as a victory.

"It's a shame the Lewis group wants to waste our people's money with ridiculous lawsuits that get laughed out of court," he said in a prepared statement.

Members of McDonald's group have run the tribe's business complex and the resort and casino for nearly 13 months.

In arguing for the restraining order, Robert Rosette, the Lewis group's lead counsel, said there is no "single official United States document recognizing them (McDonald's group) as the legitimate tribal council."

In legal documents filed last month, the Lewis group claims a note inside two bags of cash from the casino listed the tribe's gaming commission address as the destination for the $316,017. The information was provided in a letter from the San Francisco-based law firm of Bingham-McCutcheon, which represents Rabobank. The tribe's Rabobank account pays Wells Fargo, which represents investors in the $250 million restructured financing for the casino complex.

The $316,017 was counted in the casino's cage, then driven by armored car transport to another location for a second count, a Lewis group lawyer said. During that count, a note was found inside the bags that said the money should go to tribal gaming commission offices in Coarsegold.

When the local Rabobank branch manager inquired about the deposit with a top casino employee, "she said the money belonged to the Chukchansi Rancheria and that the money was mistakenly delivered to Garda" -- the armored car company for Rabobank, a court affidavit said.

The casino official then called Loomis, another armored car company, to retrieve the money, the letter said. Loomis employees then returned the money to the casino.

McDonald group officials said the money was placed in a tribal bank account.

Lewis group lawyer Richard Verri said they intend to seek the restraining order again if the federal appeals board returns with a ruling in their favor.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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