FRESNO – All parties involved in the dispute over leadership of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians appeared in U.S. District Court this afternoon before federal Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill.
The hearing follows an armed confrontation on Thursday, Oct. 9, that prompted the shutdown of the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino in Coarsegold.
The courtroom was filled with a large contingent of tribal members, and an adjacent courtroom was opened to accommodate the overflow, where people could watch the proceedings on closed circuit TV.
Judge O’Neill made it clear from the beginning of today’s hearing that he was not there to determine who is the legal owner of the casino, but noted that “this is causing strife and hardship to the employees and their families who have bills to pay, and collateral damage to other businesses in the community.”
He also stated that the order from the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), which would shut down the casino on Oct. 27 if certain financial documents are not forthcoming, addresses audits, not guns.
“I have seen no evidence from either side that you have met to resolve these issues,” said the judge. “I have seen no statement, no agreement, not even a plan or a proposal. We have factions who disagree on the ownership and take the law into their own hands, putting the public in jeopardy. No customer or employee could care less where the bullet came from if they were to get shot.”
After hearing all the arguments and citing his concerns for the safety of the public and the employees, the judge ordered that the temporary restraining order remain in place, with certain modifications.
The judge prohibited tribal members and their security forces from having any weapons on the property, and in fact all weapons are banned save those carried by law enforcement such as the Sheriff’s Office, the FBI, and any other law enforcement officers working through a mutual aid agreement.
The judge also ruled that the status quo will be maintained, meaning that the ongoing business of the casino will be conducted by those who were in charge the day before the incident of Thursday, Oct. 9. Though the hotel and casino will remain closed, about 50 employees will be allowed back on the job to handle routine maintenance on the property.
The necessary elements of the gaming commission will continue to be funded so that it can oversee the counting and depositing of monies that were in the casino at the time of the closure, as required by law. There is reportedly about $10 million in cash currently inside the casino.
The faction that was in power before the incident will remain in control, and can continue to pay bills and employees, and distribute benefits to any tribal citizens who were on the roles as of 2010. Discretionary fund payments to any of the factions have been suspended.
The judge also ordered the return of any documents that were removed from the property during the attempted take-over last Thursday, and prohibited the removal of anything else. While it was recently stated by members of the Tex McDonald faction that those documents were necessary to complete the audits required by the National Indian Gaming Commission, Richard Verri, attorney for the Lewis/Ayala Unification Council, says those boxes have nothing to do with the audit. He says they contained personnel information such as Social Security numbers, birth certificates and medical records.
O’Neill further ordered that by noon on Monday, Oct. 20, the State of California must file their documents for injunctive relief. The attorneys for the various factions will then have until Thursday, Oct. 23, at 4 p.m. to file their responses with the court, and the state has until Friday, Oct. 24 at 4 p.m. to submit their reply. A hearing on those filings has been set for Wednesday, Oct. 29, at 9 a.m.
The judge made it clear from the outset that he was not going to determine who should be running the casino, and that anyone who was in court today expecting him to do so would be disappointed. He did, however, call the current situation dangerous, adding, “We have an explosive keg here. If we put the cap back onto the keg temporarily, we have the exact same circumstances that existed before the keg blew up last week.”
He stated that there is no perfect solution when factions don’t trust each other, characterizing the situation as a “ridiculous scenario.”
“These types of disputes happen in the business world every day,” said the judge. “Most people who are smart figure out how to resolve them without destroying their business, their property and their employees. This is much more analogous to a family dispute, and there is so much hate. No matter what I say or do, all sides will say, ‘I am still right.’ That attitude never moves anything forward to resolution.”
He then ordered all the attorneys to get together and choose a time for a mandatory settlement conference, and inform the court by noon on Friday, Oct. 17. Once they have designated a date and time that works for everyone, a federal magistrate will be chosen to handle the matter.
Robert Rosette, attorney for the Unification Council of Lewis and Ayala, called the ruling today “a significant victory, with the judge recognizing the status quo, and keeping the existing management in place, allowing them to keep the casino ready to reopen.”
Rosette explained that shutting down the machines in the casino would be a major setback, and is not like just pulling a plug.
“It is very important not to shut down those machines,” Rosette said. “It requires a specialized team and is a two-to-three week process. If that happened, the casino would be closed for six months to a year.”
He also noted that taking such a step would force massive layoffs of employees.
“To restaff would require about six weeks,” said Rosette. “You have to do background checks and license renewals. We are very happy with today’s outcome; we got everything we needed to keep things running, and give us the ability to address the NIGC issues.”
The judge said that it would be futile for the court to indicate that the casino can reopen, due to the pending order by the National Indian Gaming Commission. However he went on to say, “Should the commission rule that the casino can be reopened, that will be considered automatic authority from this court.”
Most of the parties involved were satisfied with the results of today’s hearing. Richard Verri, attorney for the Lewis/Ayala faction, said the ruling was very encouraging.
“We have worked hard to get the audits completed for 2012 -2013, and anticipate that Ernst & Young will have them ready within seven days.”
Reggie Lewis also felt it was a good outcome, with one qualifier. “We are on our way to working this out. Of course, I would like to have had a date to reopen the casino.”
Vernon King from the Tex McDonald faction said there were some things he liked and others he didn’t.
“I am looking forward to mediation, and working out when the casino can open safely,” said King. “We need to work out our issues because this is having a huge impact on our workers and our families. It is going to require give and take on all sides, and with mediation, we aren’t being excluded.”
The casino will remain closed until authorities are satisfied that the safety of public and the employees is ensured, and pending the outcome of the NIGC order to produce audits. The tribe has until Oct. 27 to turn over the audits or face a cease and desist order.
Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino employee hotline: 559-692-5455