A federal administrative law judge will not back a Bureau of Indian Affairs decision in February to hand control of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians to a tribal council elected in 2010, putting the tribal leadership back into question.
Council members who were elected subsequently and are operating the casino and are working out of the rancheria's tribal business offices had appealed the BIA decision.
Administrative Law Judge Steven Linscheid said the February decision by Amy Dustchke, the BIA's Pacific Region director, "fails to articulate the ... reasoning for why she believes making the decision effective immediately would preserve the public health and safety."
The decision likely ends hope for a speedy resolution to the conflict between the faction on the Coarsegold rancheria led by Tex McDonald and a Fresno-based group headed by Reggie Lewis.
It means the full Interior Board of Indian Appeals will now hear arguments from both sides, a process that is expected to take months and perhaps years, experts say.
If the appeals board backs Linscheid's decision, the issue then could go to the assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said Richard Verri, a lawyer representing the Lewis group.
Dustchke's decision to recognize the board elected in 2010 effectively sided with the Lewis group, which had five of the seven council members serving in 2010. The McDonald group has no members from the 2010 council since it suspended Nancy Ayala, who previously led the council.
Under the Dustchke decision, the Lewis group will continue to be recognized by the federal government for certain contracts. But the McDonald group continues to have oversight of the tribal complex and casino.
"The Lewis faction wastes our people's money, energy and time with their foolish lawyering and selfishness," McDonald said in a prepared statement. "And again, they've lost."
Robert Rosette, lawyer for the Lewis group, denied that the decision favored the McDonald group, which he said is trying to "stall the inevitable" of returning the Lewis group to power at the rancheria.
Linscheid was similarly dismissive of the McDonald group's claims of leadership.
The appeals board decision does not make "an implied finding ... that the McDonald Council is likely to succeed on the merits of its appeal," the judge said.
While the legal wrangling continues, the tribe's casino in Coarsegold continues operating without interruption.
David Wilkins, an author and professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, said Chukchansi's problems are new and unique to federal authorities.
"I think all the parties are making this up as they go along," he said. "All this stuff with gaming is so fresh and these contending factions are so novel that it's really hard to say where it's headed."
But Kenneth Hansen, a Fresno State associate professor of political science and co-author of "New Politics of Indian Gaming," said he thinks the federal government has no interest in the tribe's political conflicts.
"The only thing the government seems to have been responsive to in any of this is the bankers," he said, referring to the tribe's restructured financing and payments for the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino construction bonds. "If somebody owes money to the bank, that's all they get upset about."
He said the government will likely continue to stay out of the fray, as much as possible.
"They don't seem to care about rights or who governs or procedure," Hansen said. "They are responsive to special interest but not concerns over legitimacy ... and this could take years."
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