California Asks Feds to Intervene in Tribal Near-Civil war

Two factions of California’s Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians have come perilously close to bloodshed over the operation of the Rolling Hills Casino in Northern California. Attorney General Kamala Harris’ (l.) office has asked a federal court to intervene.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris has asked the federal courts to intervene in a near civil war in the gaming tribe that operates the Rolling Hills Casino in the northern part of the state.

The move is being greeted by something approaching relief by both sides in the case, which revolves around the issue of tossing members out of the tribe and over who actually runs the tribal casino.

On April 12, at the tribe’s annual General Council meeting, some members asked questions about the use of tribal funds and four council members either “abandoned” their seats, as is described by the opposing side, or left what they considered to be an illegal proceeding. Later in that same meeting replacements were elected to the council, something that was ratified by another meeting on May 10. This was done under the leadership of Chairman Andrew Freeman, who also persuaded the meeting to dis-enroll about 60 members of the tribe, which has 216 members.

The move is considered illegal by the other faction because it was not listed on the agenda. They claim that the contention that the actions were taken “by acclimation” are false. They also claim that the minutes of both meetings were falsified. In a lawsuit they stated, “None of the remaining Councilmembers were aware of the Chairman’s unilateral proclamation, or understood the reasoning behind it; in shock, they objected. Chairman Freeman did not honor the objection of the four Council members or otherwise call the meeting to order, and pandemonium ensued.”

Shortly thereafter Freeman, and some of his supporters, who include the non-Indian managers of the casino, physically took control of the casino. This led to an April 21 letter from the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC, which expressed concerns, “that the tribal government recognized by the BIA is not in control of the Band’s gaming operation and remains excluded from the premises. I am concerned that the gaming at the Casino is not being conducted by the Band—that is, by the governmental authority recognized by the Secretary of the Interior.”

Troy Burdick, superintendent of BIA’s Central California Agency witnessed a confrontation involving armed factions, and described the situation in his letter as “very volatile.” He also wrote that “tensions are high,” and added, “there is no indication that the stand-off will conclude at any time soon.”

He wrote the tribe, “It is my determination that your operations are illegal, and unlawfully located on real property held in trust by the United States of America. I have determined that there is a need to protect against a threat to the public health and safety, and protect a trust resource.”

On May 7 the ousted councilmembers, led by Vice Chairman David Swearinger, filed suit against Freeman, claiming that he effected “an illegal, hostile takeover, using armed men to exclude the tribe’s lawful, federally-recognized governing body.”

Subsequent armed stand offs and tense situations have derived from those events.

The attorney general asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California for a temporary restraining order against the tribe and to find that the tribe has violated its Class III gaming compact with the state. If the tribe is held to have violated its compact, the casino could be closed.

The state seeks emergency relief to prevent a threat to public health and safety resulting from the feud between two rival factions of the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians, who are struggling over who actually runs the casino. The contingents have so far had several confrontations between armed personnel, each claiming to represent the legally governing authority of the tribe.

Amazingly, despite the confrontations and stand-off, the casino has continued to operate and patrons have continued to go in and out, although accompanied by guards.

The restraining order would bar either of the sides that are contending for control of the casino from coming within 100 yards of the casino or other tribal properties.

The AG’s complaint asserts that the tribe has violated its gaming compact because the safety of patrons and employees of the casino are being threatened. It calls the situation an “imminent threat to public health and safety.”

The complaint quotes at length emails from government officials and attorneys for both sides, and includes statements from the local Sheriff as well as a former sheriff who for a short time was the tribe’s police chief.

When he resigned as tribal police chief after one month in office, Clay Parker commented, “When I took the post I let everybody involved know that I would serve as Chief until all means and modes of peaceful resolution had been exhausted; and that any point when I realized that there would be no peaceful resolution to this discord, I would resign.”

Deputies of the Tehama County Sheriff’s Department have been posted near the casino since June 9 to maintain the peace. On June 11 four members of the tribal council who constitute one faction attempted to enter the casino, accompanied by armed “tribal police” but were blocked by an armed private security firm and 100 members of the tribe who are allied with Freeman, who led the effort that forced the four councilmembers out of office. Some of those involved were armed with assault rifles. Eventually 15 sheriff’s deputies arrived, separated the factions, and restored order. They have been stationed at the casino ever since.

The four former councilmembers have been recognized as the legal tribal authority by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which sent a cease and desist letter to the casino to stop operating and let the four members have access. The BIA has also recognized the last elected tribal council as the governing body, and does not recognize the council that was elected after the four members left the April 12 meeting. It does recognize Freeman as chairman, however. That BIA decision is being appealed.

The same 100 tribal members who blocked the ousted councilmembers from taking control of the casino took the bus to Sacramento the next day to demand that the Bureau retract its decision and recognize their faction. Freeman met with the Burdick and presented their case, which includes accusations that $10 million of tribal money has been embezzled. Freeman’s group contends that the other faction is connected with misappropriation of tribal funds.

Burdick has offered to provide mediation service to both sides.

Both sides say they are pleased that the attorney general has appealed to the federal courts. Freeman told KRCR TV: “It’s the same thing we wanted. We wanted everything the same. We didn’t want to have any problems fighting with anyone or trying to fight with anyone, all we wanted was to do our business like it was normal. This is exactly what we wanted.”

Vice Chairman David Swearinger, leader of the opposing faction, commented by email, “The state Attorney General is taking action on a very volatile situation—the only one to do so. The Tribal Council welcomes her involvement… Correcting this situation will benefit the tribe and secure the jobs of the employees working there.”

Both sides have agreed to sit down with mediators, although a statement by Freeman shows how far apart they remain. “The more they lie, the more it shows how desperate they are. If they really respected the rule of law as they claim, then they would follow the law and respect the Constitutional acts of the Tribe that removed them from office. It is sad what people do when they get desperate, but it is clear that the suspended members are trying to disrupt business in hopes of derailing the investigation into their alleged embezzlement of millions of dollars from our tribal accounts.”

Money is at the heart of the dispute. Every adult member of the tribe is paid $54,000 annually from the casino, which opened a dozen years ago. The tribe has used profits to purchase a corporate jet and 162 ounces of gold worth more than $200,000. The plane has since allegedly disappeared.

While money is usually at the center of such tribal disputes, violence is never very far away. In February of 2014 Cherie Lash Rhoades, a former chairman of the Cedarville Rancheria in rural Modoc County, California, allegedly shot and killed her brother, Rurik “Two Bears” Davis who had replaced her as chairman in a dispute over her suspension, and three other people.