MADERA COUNTY – With unemployment benefits running out for displaced workers at the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino, and many unable to find employment elsewhere, the question of what the future holds for the casino is front and center for many.
The casino was abruptly shut down on Oct. 9, 2014, after an attempted armed takeover by one of the warring factions claiming to be the legitimate leadership of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians.
In an interview outside the Madera County Superior Court last Friday, Reggie Lewis told SNO that the 2010 Tribal Council is meeting on a regular basis, and has now been recognized as the legitimate governing body by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Internal Board of Indian Appeals (IBIA) and the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC).
Lewis says the council is meeting twice a week, working together and negotiating with the NIGC to get things back on track and reopen the Coarsegold business that once employed nearly 1,200 people.
The NIGC has given the council a “term sheet,” a multi-page document outlining what needs to be done in order for the casino to reopen.
Though Lewis characterizes some of the requirements on the term sheet as “outrageous,” as compared to what other tribes in their position have faced, he says he and the rest of the council are committed to working through the process, getting people back to work, and restoring services and benefits to their tribal citizens.
“We’re hearing different dates, and we won’t have anything concrete until we get the term sheet ironed out, but I would say 3 to 4 months at the very soonest, and 6 months to a year at the very longest.”
Lewis says the “2010 Interim Council” is made up of himself, Chance Alberta, Dora Jones, Morris Reid, Nancy Ayala, Jennifer Stanley and Nokomis Hernandez. This council was seated after what was the last uncontested election by the entire tribal membership.
“I’m saying ‘interim’ because there have been appeals filed against the decision to recognize this council, and it’s gone back to the IBIA,” says Lewis.
As has been the pattern with leadership disputes in the Chukchansi tribe over recent years, each of the four factions has filed appeals with the IBIA, challenging the others’ assertions that they are the legitimate tribal government.
The general council election set for for May 2, was supposed to decide once and for all, who is in charge; however, that is not likely to take place as scheduled, says Lewis.
“I doubt we’re going to make that date, but it’s still going to be as soon as possible.”
Part of the problem may be the fact that the leaders of three of the warring factions are now sitting on the same council. Reggie Lewis, Morris Reid and Nancy Ayala, along with four others, are trying to work together and hammer out their problems. Tex McDonald, leader of the fourth faction, remains behind bars after being arrested following the Oct. 9 takeover attempt, which was orchestrated and carried out by McDonald and his followers.
“We are managing to get things done, but not without a lot of arguing,” says Lewis. “Even when you don’t have three supposed tribal factions there, it’s still tough to get things accomplished. You’re working with seven people who all have different opinions on how things should work.”
Having a recognized leadership structure may go a long way toward simplifying the process, and Lewis says he is pleased to report that the BIA will be working with them in the upcoming election “to make sure that when we’re done, it will be a recognized election, and will be certified.”
Lewis says they are trying to conduct business as normally as possible, but are not able to do as many things as before, due to the shutdown of funds coming in to the casino. This lack of cash flow caused the cessation of the per capita payments to their tribal citizens early in the 2015.
Now they are working on such things as getting projects back up and running that were made possible by the 638 funding. 638 funding is federal grant money made available to recognized tribes through the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, and Lewis says getting that funding back lends even more legitimacy to the current council.
“When you get that funding, you are being recognized as the legitimate government to do business with the BIA and the federal agencies, in a government to government relationship,” he says. Lewis notes that with 638 money once again available, students will be able to start applying for scholarships.
They are also looking at hiring people to provide critical services such as weed abatement for tribal seniors who are not able to afford to hire people or do the job themselves.
Lewis says those are the only two projects they are able to do at this point, but as things stabilize, they hope to hire more people and add to the skeleton crew with which they are currently operating.
There are between 15 and 20 employees at the casino, says Lewis, performing maintenance on water and treatment systems, providing security, and handling other general upkeep necessary at the large facility.
Most of the gaming machines are long gone, having been retrieved by the vendors who own them, for lease to other customers, since they weren’t generating any income where they sat.
As to what will happen if and when the casino does finally reopen, Lewis says they will start from square one.
“When we start hiring, it will be the same process that everybody had to go through when we first opened,” he says. “Just because you worked there before, doesn’t mean you automatically get to come back to your job. There may be points for past employees, but we don’t know yet. All that will have to be worked out.”
With accusations flying back and forth about missing cash and incomplete audits, Lewis says he wants a full forensic audit performed to set the record straight.
“There has never been a forensic audit done,” says Lewis. “The audits that were sent in got sent back, saying they were incomplete. If the NIGC doesn’t accept it, as far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t been done.”
Lewis says a forensic audit could take up to a year, perhaps longer, and that the council is talking with different firms about contracting for the job.
Lewis’s response to the question of who’s in charge, and why the tribe can’t solve the problem, is adamant.
“The tribe has solved it! We’ve had our quarterly meetings with enough people there to make a quorum, and when you get a quorum of the general council [the tribal membership] they can actually direct the tribal council. And they have recognized my group as being the legitimate council. So the tribe has solved it, but nobody wants to pay any attention, and that includes the BIA, the IBIA, the NIGC, everybody. My thinking is that we’re only as sovereign as they let us be.”
The issue of sovereignty is being addressed, or rather, deftly juggled, as the case against Tex McDonald, Vernon King and 13 other defendants, works its way through Madera Superior Court. The recent motion to dismiss all charges by defense lawyers was characterized by Lewis as “a typical attorney move.”
“Don’t try and fool yourself that just because you’re a tribe, you can say ‘Oh, we’re sovereign, we can go over there with guns.’ You can’t do that,” says Lewis, referring to the October attempted armed takeover of the casino on Oct. 9, 2014.
“There are agreements in place, and we had an MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] with the County, and we are a PL 280 state. The Sheriff and the Tribe had an agreement that allows the Sheriff to come in and he has jurisdiction. For these guys to try and say he doesn’t is bogus.”
Lewis also says McDonald and King are scapegoats, and there are plenty of other people who should be sitting in jail along with them.
“I don’t know why they didn’t arrest all the people involved, because Tex and Vernon are the fall guys for the rest of the council. It wasn’t just them that gave those guys permission to do that. There had to be a concerted effort; they all had to conspire about the planning. The attorneys were in on it, their gaming commission was in on it, they all knew what was going on and they sent those guys in there and told them they could do whatever they had to do. So if they were involved, I think they should be sitting right in there with their jumpsuits on too.”
As for the jobs lost due to the closure of the casino, Lewis says he’s committed to getting the business back up and running, and putting people back to work.
“I think everybody realizes now what a big impact shutting down the casino has had, not only on the tribe, but on the community. We’re not paying any money to the Sheriff’s Office now, not paying any money to CDF for fire protection, or to the gaming commission. When all these entities were being paid, they didn’t care what happened; ‘just let them fight it out amongst themselves.’ It’s a very sad commentary on the way people look at Indian casinos – their attitude is, ‘we don’t want to get involved; as long as we’re getting our money, we don’t care.’ Now they’re all feeling the impact.”
Lewis is optimistic about the chances of getting the casino reopened in a relatively short time.
“There needs to be a lot of negotiation back and forth,” he says. “I think we’re ahead of schedule for getting something at least started, because there are other tribes who’ve had the same type of problem that have been closed for up to ten years. We’ve only been closed six months, and are moving forward, so for us to be where we are right now, I think is really encouraging.”