New takeover attempt waged at Chukchansi tribal office

The Fresno BeeAugust 25, 2014 

The front entrance and the water feature are seen at Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino.

CRAIG KOHLRUSS — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians has a new rift, with one group in the tribe's business complex and a second group, representing a cross-section of previous tribal councils, inside Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino.

The group in the casino employed armed security officers to get inside and have set up headquarters in an 11th floor suite, Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said on Monday. The group in the casino is overseeing its operations and the casino remains open for business.

The casino takeover reportedly began about 3 a.m. Monday. Members of the rival Reggie Lewis and Nancy Ayala factions joined forces and negotiated during the past week, said Robert Rosette, an Arizona lawyer who has represented the tribe during its turbulent infighting over much of the past three years.

He said the council is made up of six members of councils in the past four years, including Lewis and Ayala. Other members are: Karen Wynn, Nokomis Hernandez, Tracy Brechbuehl and Chance Alberta.

The federal government earlier this year recognized a council with members from the 2010 council, but some of those members are not on the newly formed panel.

The new leadership is being called the "unification council" and the six members do not give either side a quorum on controversial issues, Rosette said.

"Neither side can unilaterally make decisions to unwind the democratic processes of the tribe," he said.

It's the second time in less than three weeks that a takeover has been attempted. Earlier this month, a group led by former tribal council chairwoman Ayala, attempted a takeover of the business complex. It was settled after a day of negotiations.

Sheriff Anderson said he doesn't know how long this dispute will continue and that he is consulting with the federal authorities. In the meantime, Anderson is working to arrange meetings between the sides. He said a disagreement between them emerged over a financial audit for the tribe and casino.

The Ayala and Lewis group also tried to enter the office complex, which is across Road 417 from the casino, but security for the Tex McDonald group kept them from getting on site, said David Leibowitz, spokesman for that group.

McDonald's group called it an illegal takeover plot.

Vice Chair Monica Davis said the tribe has rules for naming a council and storming the casino and tribal offices are not among of them.

"It doesn't include showing up with a raiding party because you don't like the people who have been constitutionally elected or appointed as leaders," she said in a prepared statement. "It's very clear to me that those who want to raid the office hate the thought of a forensic financial audit -- a professional examination of where these deposed leaders spent our tribe's money."

Under an agreement reached by the Lewis-Ayala tribal council, the six-member council will remain intact until May, when a new tribal council election will be held. In that "clean slate" election, anyone can seek office and anyone can vote, Rosette said, because previous sanctions are lifted.

"This tribal government has been working hard to do what's in the best interest of all the tribal members and what the (federal) government had been asking, to work together," he said.

Rosette said members of the McDonald group in the tribal complex also will be eligible to seek office and vote.

But, he said, the group in the tribal office -- the McDonald faction -- is not recognized by the federal government.

"It's a new day, we should put political differences and legal differences aside," he said. "We can stay in court for five years and have the lawyers do quite well or have the people come together."

In 2011, the tribal council led by Lewis and Ayala disenrolled members, a move opposed by other council members, including Morris Reid.

In December 2011, an election resulted in a majority for members of Reid's group, but the credentials of one member were challenged by the Lewis group, resulting in a council split.

In February 2012, Reid group supporters managed to sneak into the tribal complex and take over a building. The two-day standoff ended with three people hurt and the Lewis group staying in power.

Ayala is a member of the Ramirez and Wyatt families, who claim to be the founding Chukchansi tribal members. They lost a lawsuit in federal court in January 2013 and a month later, Ayala filed petitions at a tribal council meeting that led to the ouster of Lewis and his council members.

The Lewis and Reid groups then agreed to work together. But Reid and Dora Jones, who were on the 2010 council, were not named to the "unification council." Both declined comment on Monday.

Earlier this year, Ayala was ousted from the council by fellow members on ethics charges. The tribe's operations then were overseen by a group led by McDonald.

Tribal leadership became even more complicated when the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs in February supported a council elected in 2010 as the tribe's governing body. That council included Ayala, Lewis and Reid.

The federal decision to recognize the 2010 election effectively sided with the Lewis group, which claimed five of the seven council members serving then.

But two months later a federal judge plunged tribal leadership back into question after an appeal of the BIA decision by the McDonald group.

The judge said BIA officials failed to show that an immediate change in leadership "would preserve the public health and safety" of the tribe.

The judge's ruling means the full Interior Board of Indian Appeals must hear arguments from both sides, a process that is expected to take months and perhaps years, experts say.

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

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