Chukchansi Gold casino’s latest setback requires time to resolve

On the verge of reopening Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians’ tribal council last week lost all its gaming regulatory team, which now throws its reopening plans into disarray.

On Friday, the last of the tribe’s three gaming commissioners, Lael Echo-Hawk, resigned her position. Her resignation came after fellow commission members Harlan Goodson and Norm DesRosiers resigned along with Kammy Chhom, the gaming commission’s executive director, earlier last week.

By Monday, tribal council members were working to recruit new gaming commissioners, said Reggie Lewis, the council’s chairman.

“We have to get that taken care of,” Lewis said. “Without a gaming commission in place, we can’t open the casino.”

The latest controversy seems to guarantee that the casino will have been closed more than a year. A gaming office raid led to the federal gaming commission and state attorney general closing the casino on Oct. 10, 2014. It hasn’t reopened. Chukchansi Gold employed more than 1,000 when it closed last year.

In recent months, the tribe’s bondholders reached a $35 million agreement to fund the reopening process, and the tribe was a few weeks from opening when last week’s resignations occurred. Resort officials had to furlough 100 of the 150 workers at the Coarsegold hotel and casino.

That led to a letter from the National Indian Gaming Commission late last week notifying the tribe it was not in compliance with the agency’s rules for gaming to resume, Lewis said.

None of the gaming commissioners were tribal members, nor was Chhom.

Lewis said the tribe must hire gaming regulators who are “disinterested third parties” from outside the tribe, but ultimately, any gaming commissioners must be approved by federal officials, Lewis said.

“It will take time to get the other gaming commissioners and a new executive director, then approval of the NIGC,” he said. “We are looking at several weeks’ delay. … If things don’t go right, this could go on for quite a while.”

Last week’s resignations were caused by what tribal gaming officials described as a breach of the gaming ordinance. It requires that hiring of the gaming commission’s executive director be done by gaming commissioners. Firing the commission’s executive requires approval of the tribal council after the gaming commission makes its decision.

In resignation letters, gaming commissioners said the council tried to usurp their power.

Echo-Hawk’s letter, dated Friday, is similar to letters from Chhom and DesRosiers earlier last week. She said the tribal politics of the council had infiltrated the tribe’s gaming regulatory process.

“Gaming is a remarkably effective tool for tribal economic development when conducted under strict regulatory standards and free from the imposition of tribal politics,” Echo-Hawk wrote in her resignation letter. “I echo the concerns of former Chairman DesRosiers regarding recent council actions and find myself similarly unable to continue to serve on the commission.”

All three commission members were appointed because they are nationally recognized in tribal gaming circles. The tribe’s appointments were made in cooperation with the National Indian Gaming Commission.

A letter dated Thursday from the federal government said the tribe’s “willingness to violate its own tribal gaming laws while negotiating the settlement of existing NIGC enforcement actions is alarming.”

The letter, written by Douglas Hatfield, the federal gaming commission’s director of compliance, added that the tribe’s actions have a direct impact on his department’s recommendation about “whether a settlement agreement should be entered into with the tribe.”

On Monday, federal gaming commission officials said they had not heard from the tribe.

“At this time, the tribe has not reached out to the NIGC for any assistance or advice,” said Michael Odle, spokesman for the federal gaming commission. “From day one, we have been clear that the integrity of the gaming operation is paramount and the lack of an independent gaming regulatory authority most certainly would impact the integrity of the gaming operation.”

He added: “We have said that government stability is also key and the recent resignation of the tribe’s gaming authority is concerning.”

The tribe’s continued infighting is unsettling to Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler, whose district includes Chukchansi Gold.

“I am really disappointed.” he said. “I thought they were going forward with progress to get it open, but this has really hurt their chances for a while. I don’t think this is a little setback.”

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

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