A federal judge in Fresno says that one faction of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians disobeyed an order he issued after Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino was closed in October, but he did not find the group in contempt.
In an order issued Tuesday, Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill said decisions by the Reggie Lewis-Nancy Ayala faction not to send stipends to 2010 tribe members who were later disenrolled and to distribute nearly $1 million to tribe members for a general council meeting last month were a “bad-faith response to this court’s order” in October.
But he stopped short of charging the group with contempt, because the issues do “not fall squarely within this court’s jurisdiction.”
The federal court’s actions are limited because of tribal nation sovereignty, O’Neill said. “This court was forced to put its toe in the door when presented with an emergency situation,” he said, referring to the Oct. 10 closure order for Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino. “But it will not swing the door wide open and walk into an area where it is not permitted to tread.”
Lawyers for the Morris Reid faction said the Lewis-Ayala faction’s failure to send stipend checks was a violation of the judge’s order and constituted contempt.
“The court declines to issue an order to show cause (for contempt) regarding this aspect of the Reid faction’s allegations,” O’Neill wrote in his seven-page decision.
In declarations, the Lewis-Ayala group said it withheld payments to a certain group of “individuals allegedly rendered ineligible to receive distributions after 2010.”
Lawyers for the Lewis-Ayala faction said the “checks are being held in escrow in a tribal bank account” until there is a final determination on tribal membership eligibility and whether the federal court can issue mandates on tribal matters.
After a casino office raid was orchestrated by a third faction four months ago at the Chukchansi casino, the judge issued an order to keep sides separated from one another and ensure safety of the tribe and its property. He also said that the tribe should continue to pay its monthly stipends to tribe members — about $350 per month — and include all members dating back to 2010.
Between 100 and 150 have been disenrolled, and Lewis and Ayala, who lead the “unification council,” chose not to send stipends to them.
The judge said the Lewis/Ayala faction argued that it could not pay those who were disenrolled because it would constitute a violation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and their own law.
The other issue that O’Neill said constituted “bad faith” was the Jan. 24 general council meeting, at which tribe members were issued $1,000 stipends to attend. For any votes at the meeting to be valid, the tribe needed 30% of members to show up. The price tag: nearly $1 million, the judge said.
Lewis-Ayala faction officials said the money was used in the “ordinary course of business” and that the judge’s previous order had permitted it.
But O’Neill cited a 2013 order by a New York State judge and said that “nothing in that order or its attachments appears to justify the Lewis-Ayala faction’s conclusion that the general council meeting expenses were done in the ordinary course of business.”
It’s a contention that was made by Reid faction lawyer James Qaqundah, who said Tuesday that he was encouraged O’Neill found the Lewis-Ayala faction acted in “bad faith” and recognized O’Neill’s limitations.
“It definitely seems like he was trying to walk a line,” Qaqundah said. “He recognized bad faith, but felt constrained to get involved.”
Ayala said that in both situations her group acted properly by not issuing stipends to those disenrolled and paying members who attended the Jan. 24 meeting.
Ayala said they are unable to pay anyone who is not a tribal member.
“I appreciate the ruling because I can’t give money to people who are not members of my tribe,” she said.
Those disenrolled between 2010 and 2012 did not meet the criteria to remain as tribal members, Ayala said.
She also said the tribe must pay members for general council meetings, otherwise they won’t have enough people to conduct an election.
“That was a direct operating expense as far as I’m concerned.”