FRESNO – Federal District Court Judge Lawrence O’Neill today denied a motion for contempt filed by the Morris Reid Faction of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians against the Lewis/Ayala faction.
In documents filed with the court, the Reid faction asked that the judge hold the Lewis/Ayala faction in contempt for issuing per capita payments to some tribal citizens, but not others.
They also asked the court to require that monies be returned to the tribal bank account for certain payments they believe were improperly made. Namely, close to $1 million expended to hold a General Council meeting in Fresno in late January.
Today’s ruling is the latest chapter in a long history of legal battles between the factions claiming rightful control of the tribe and its casino.
Following an attempted takeover of the casino on Oct. 9, 2014, by armed members of a faction headed by Tex McDonald, the State petitioned for, and the court granted a temporary restraining order (TRO), ordering that the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino cease operations and close its doors until an agreement could be reached as to who was in charge, intended to ensure the safety of the public and employees at the casino.
On Oct. 29, the court converted the TRO to a preliminary injunction (PI), forbidding “all tribal factions from attempting to disturb, modify or otherwise change the circumstances that were in effect at the Casino as of the afternoon of October 8, 2014,” including “attempting to repossess, or take control of the Casino in whole or in part.” However, payments made “in the ordinary course of business,” including per capita tribal distributions based upon the Tribe’s membership list as of Dec.1, 2010 were allowed.
The Reid Faction claims that the Lewis/Ayala Faction has violated the court’s order by making per capita payments only to select tribal members.
According to court documents, the Lewis/Ayala Faction admits this is true, but offers an explanation for its actions. They say they issued equal per capita checks to every member listed in the Tribe’s 2010 membership roll, but withheld distribution of checks made out to certain individuals allegedly “rendered ineligible to receive distributions after 2010.”
The Lewis/Ayala Faction claims that “this was done because there were concerns that distributing per capita payments to individuals who might no longer be eligible members of the tribe could violate the IGRA [Indian Gaming Regulatory Act] and tribal law. Those withheld checks are being held in escrow in a Tribal bank account until such time as any conflict in the legal mandates regarding distributions is resolved or the allegedly ineligible individuals otherwise become active members of the Tribe in good standing.”
The Reid Faction also alleges that the Lewis/Ayala Faction improperly used nearly $1 million in casino revenue to hold a Quarterly General Council, including $1,000 “travel stipends” paid to a reported 550 tribal members who attended a Jan. 24, 2015, General Council meeting in Fresno.
Both motions for redress were denied by the judge, who ruled that this is outside the scope of his earlier order, which was to keep the public safe, not to interfere with intra-tribal disputes.
“There can be no doubt that the Lewis/Ayala Faction’s actions show a bad faith response to this Court’s order. But, again, the present dispute extends to matters that do not fall squarely within this Court’s jurisdiction. The Casino’s cash has been secured. The Casino remains closed. The public cannot possibly be endangered unless and until the Casino is re-opened under continued hostilities.
“This Court was forced to put its toe in the door when presented with an emergency situation, but it will not swing the door wide open and walk into an area where it is not permitted to tread. Accordingly, this Court declines to issue an order to show cause regarding the expenditure of Casino revenue at the General Council Meeting. The misuse of funds by a tribal faction is beyond the jurisdiction of this Court. For the same reasons, this Court declines to order an accounting and/or appoint a receiver.”
The battle between the factions continues, as evidenced by this video posted on YouTube by Mick Donald, recorded at the Jan. 24 General Council.