MADERA COUNTY – With newly-hired employees furloughed, and the resignations in recent days of all three members of the Picayune Tribal Gaming Commission, the prospects for reopening the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino any time soon are looking bleak.
The Tribe is now facing not only a lack of confidence from the National Indian Gaming Commission (NGIC), but also what is sure to be another dispute over the results of the Oct. 3 elections.
Douglas Hatfield, Director of Compliance of the NIGC, sent a letter to the Chukchansi Tribal Council, dated Sept. 17, expressing concern over the recent decision of the Council in voting to dismiss the Executive Director of the Gaming Commission Khmaphila (Kammy) Chhom, and the fallout from that action.
Hatfield said he was concerned about the resignation of Norman DesRosiers as Chairman of the Tribal Gaming Commission, followed just days later by the resignations of Commissioners Harlan Goodson and Lael Echo-Hawk.
During a meeting of the Tribal Council on Sept. 3, they passed Resolution 2015-64, approving the removal of Chhom from her position as Executive Director of the Gaming Commission for “Misconduct,” instructing the Board of Commissioners to secure all records, and to hire a new Executive Director. Council President Reggie Lewis, along with Nancy Ayala and Jennifer Stanley all voted “No” on the resolution, but were overruled by the “Yes” votes of Morris Reid, Nokomis Hernandez, Chance Alberta and Dora Jones.
Such interference with the workings of the Gaming Commission is a violation of the Tribe’s own Gaming Ordinance, says Hatfield, noting that tribal law states that the Executive Director shall be selected by the Board of Commissioners, and employed by the Tribal Gaming Commission, and can only be terminated by the Board of Commissioners with the approval of the Tribal Council.
Hatfield goes on to say that the Tribal Council’s action has caused the NIGC “great concern.”
“The Tribal Council’s interference in the Tribal Gaming Commission’s choice of an executive director undermines the independence of the Tribal Gaming Commission,” said Hatfield.
The departure of Chhom and sudden resignation of all three commissioners leaves the Tribe without a functioning regulatory body, said Hatfield, who called the Tribal Council’s willingness to violate its own tribal gaming laws, particularly while negotiating the settlement of existing NIGC enforcement actions, “alarming.”
“The stability of the Tribal government and the related ability for the Gaming Commission to perform its duties is an ongoing subject of the settlement discussions,” stated Hatfield, and will have a direct impact on his agency’s recommendation as to whether the NIGC should enter into a settlement agreement with the Tribe.
According to Reggie Lewis, the Council will be meeting in Fresno today with Phil Hogan, who chaired the NIGC for several years, and will “walk everyone through the laws and discuss why the Council thinks they can do this.”
As to the commissioners who resigned, Lewis says they had those people in place for a reason.
“They were not involved in tribal politics,” says Lewis. “They were all outside people who knew the rules and regulations, and for the Council to step in like they did at the last minute, just before we were ready to start closing all these deals and signing all the papers to get the casino reopened, is ridiculous.”
Lewis says tribal member Mark Emerick wanted the job of Executive Director and told the Council they needed to honor tribal preference and put him in that position. Norm DesRosier asked the Council to do what was best for the Tribe and keep Chhom on as Executive Director throughout the process of reopening the casino, but Lewis says they ignored the recommendation.
“After we get the casino open and get stabilized a bit, they can bring that person in and have them start learning what needs to be done,” says Lewis. “So for the council to step in and assert what they wrongly think is their authority in this matter – they actually broke the law and they seem to be fine with that.”
Lewis says the Council was given a chance to rescind the resolution, but they refused.
“What they did was to put the wants of one tribal member ahead of the needs of the tribe. They blew everything out of the water when we were probably weeks away from opening the casino. Now we could be months away; we actually could be years away, I don’t know.”
As the date for the Oct. 3 tribal election approaches, Lewis has little confidence in the results, even though the process is being overseen by an outside agency.
“We don’t have an election committee and we don’t have an enrollment committee,” says Lewis. “Both of those are key components in running the election the right way. The election committee has to go to the enrollment committee to get a proper list of members who are eligible to vote.”
Lewis says he doesn’t know who received ballots and who didn’t, because the enrollment files that would determine membership are in the compound across the road from the casino, and that facility is still being occupied by Monica Davis and the remnants of the Nancy Ayala faction.
“We can’t get access to the files because they won’t allow us access,” he says. “So we don’t know who came up with the list of eligible voters, but we do know that there is a discrepancy of 50 to 60 members.”
The problem of the membership list continues to plague the process, with everyone disagreeing on who is a member and who is not.
At the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 15, Monica Davis told the Board that her group believes the Oct. 3 election is unconstitutional because there is no election committee to determine who is on the membership list.
“There’s no such thing in place for this particular election, so how do you know if that’s an eligible voter?” said Davis.
Indian Dispute Resolution Services out of Sacramento was hired to run the election and send out the ballots. Dora Jones, a Council member who is part of the four-person majority on the Council, also addressed the Board last Tuesday, stating that “rather than having an election committee appointed by the Tribal Council, the voting and the results are being overseen by an outside company.”
That still doesn’t solve the problem of whether or not the votes they’re overseeing are being cast by legitimate members of the Tribe, according to Lewis, or who decided on that list.
District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler says he is very disappointed with the entire situation.
“It’s really upsetting that the interim council has messed with so many lives,” said Wheeler. “It’s sad to see what their poor decisions have done to their people, employees, and all the businesses involved. Let’s just hope that somehow they’ll elect a new council with common sense, that looks out for all the people, and who don’t put themselves in front first.”