California Casino Lays Off 1,300 Employees

A northern California casino, the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino (l.), has laid off nearly 1,300 employees after a federal judge and the National Indian Gaming Commission closed it two weeks ago. Officials can’t set a date for reopening.

The Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino in northern California, forced to close on orders of the National Indian Gaming Commission and a federal judge, has laid off almost all of its 1,300 employees.

The closure stems from tribal infighting from as many as three groups each claiming to have the legal power to run the tribe. Two of the groups came to blows two weeks ago when one of them occupied a floor of the tribal administration building that included the office of the tribal gaming commission. The casino, the tribe’s main source of income, was closed at the order of the NIGC.

Casino management sent a letter to employees that said, “We cannot anticipate the duration of this closure because the government entities will not tell us how long this closure will remain in effect.”

All non-essential employees, i.e. those not part of maintenance and management, have been released. On October 20 employees were allowed in to the casino to pick up their belongings. They were required to schedule a time to do so and to also return company property in their possession.

In a statement casino General Manager Giffen Tan commented, “We wish we could do more for our team members. However NIGC (federal) and state orders prevent us from opening any of our casino and resort operations until we come up with a solution to the issues that led to the casino’s closure. Our team members are the lifeblood of this resort and of this community. No one wants to get back up and running more than we do.”

Some employees may lose their homes and be forced to move out of nearby Oakhurst, according to Action News, which interviewed some residents of the community. The community is very dependent on tourism from the casino.

The feuding factions are expected to meet with a court-ordered mediator to try to work out a settlement under which the casino could reopen.

The tribal casino has more than once been the source of near-violence for the tribe. In 1999, long before it was built, nearly two-dozen tribal members swarmed into the tribal administrative offices, yelling, banging on doors and yelling at staffers in an incident described by law enforcement authorities as “some sort of insurrection.”

The tribal chairman at the time, Daisy Liedkie, recalls being spit on before being ousted as chairwoman, and, eventually from the tribe itself. Eventually Madera County sheriff’s deputies restored order, just as they have done this year several times.

According to one tribal member, “What’s happened is greed has taken over. It pits people against people. I think it is particularly nasty. There’s just some nasty people in that tribe. I hate to say it but it’s true.”

In the 1990s the tribe first began looking at a casino to create revenue for the tribe and raise its standard of living. The tribe had the example of the neighboring Table Mountain Casino as what could be accomplished.

By 1997 the tribe began clearing the land for the casino, near the town of Coarsegold. During the same period many non-Indian residents of the region opposed the proposed casino. At the same time the tribe was occasionally riven by disenrollment disputes. Some members disenrolled during that period were eventually restored after the Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled that they had been removed without due process.  However, in the long run the disenrollment was upheld.

After voters of California approved of Indian gaming in 2000, the tribe partnered with Cascade Entertainment to build a $180 million casino that opened in 2003 with 1,800 slot machines and 40 gaming tables. The tribe fired Cascade after only a year of its seven-year management contract. It also engaged in a protracted dispute with Madera County over lost property taxes and whether the tribe needed to obtain permits to expand its casino hotel.

The main thing that put the 900-member tribe in the news, however, was periodic wrangling over disenrollment. According to some critics, the practice became a much used weapon by factions to get rid of political opponents, and to shrink the number of people paid disbursements from casino profits. So much so that the monthly stipend has risen from $200 to $400.

Despite those numbers indicating that few members have become rich as a result of the casino, tribal ancestry files have disappeared, some say stolen.

According to Cathy Cory, who was kicked out of the tribe in 2006, and interviewed by the Fresno Bee, “Most people have papers from the National Archives. With all of this infighting and bickering I am sure our ancestors would be rolling over in their graves if they saw what’s going on … I just want a tribe more than a business and I want my federal recognition back that was stolen from me by these people.”

Some members continued to be targeted for disenrollment, including some from old families whose members were the only ones still speaking the tribe’s aboriginal language, until recently when a federal judge reinstated anyone who had been disenrolled since 2010.

This controversy contributed to the results of subsequent council elections. In February 2012 one group occupied a tribal office complex for 38 hours until Sheriff’s deputies wouldn’t let members who left to buy food and water return inside.

This was followed by a fracas where members of two rival groups beat each other up, injuring several.  

That same year another 150 members were disenrolled. Last year two families tried to reduce the size of the tribe to 46 members. A federal judge dismissed the suit.

In February of this year the BIA ventured to recognize one of the groups as the legal tribal council. That decision is now being appealed to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals—a process that could take years.

Because of continued clashes, and because the casino has not submitted audits for 2012 and 2013 the NIGC ordered the casino closed on October 7.  The state Attorney General also issued a closure order, citing concerns for customer and employee safety.

Last week one of the contending groups, led by Tex McDonald, entered the closed casinos armed and handcuffed security personnel while search for audit documents. Some were kept against their will for several hours before Sheriff’s deputies ordered their release.

Madera County Sheriff John Anderson has promised that those who committed violations, identified from surveillance recordings, will be arrested and prosecuted. The Sheriff commented, “We’re building a case now and will send it to the DA. All those people who committed violations will be arrested.” Delays in doing so Anderson attributes to delays in getting access to the footage.

Some relatives of those who were roughed up by McDonald’s group, criticize the Sheriff’s department for refusing to get involved. One of the security officers held by the intruders, Christina Rosson, told the Fresno Bee, “My dad called the Madera sheriff’s department and said, ‘My daughter is unarmed with armed assailants inside the casino — what are you going to do to help her?’ And the dispatcher that answered said, ‘Sir, we are not getting involved.’ And he said, ‘What do you mean you can’t get involved?’” at which point the dispatcher ended the call.

Anderson says he has tried to persuade each of the factions to voluntarily disarm. One has agreed. The other has not.

McDonald’s group employs armed officers who claim to be a “tribal police” force that is allowed to be armed because they represent a sovereign nation. The head of that group, John Oliveira commented last week. “They will remain armed every day they come to work because that’s what po
lice do.”

An order issued by the federal judge, Lawrence O’Neill, bars such officers or other armed personnel to come within 1,000 yards of the casino or other tribal facilities. Sheriff’s deputies have remained on site to enforce this order. Anderson complains that he would rather the deputies didn’t have to be there because they are stretching the department’s resources/.

Judge O’Neill has ordered tribal leaders to start meeting to resolve their differences. He has kept the restraining order in place that keeps the casino closed. Two weeks ago he told attorneys for all the sides, “Take your job seriously, and get it done.”

Some cynical observers, such as Gabriel S. Galanda, has a sneaking suspicion that many of the internal fracases based on disputed tribal rolls can be traced back to people using the “Dirty-Tricks Playbook of Jack Abramoff,” the convicted felon who famously said in 2001, “We do a recall, election and take over. Let’s discuss.”

The plays, says Galanda, “ are shrewdly designed to divide and conquer Tribal Councils and communities from within, while federal trustees stand on the sidelines. The first few plays are as scripted as an NFL team’s opening drive.”

While Galanda doesn’t name names, he suggests that the “bad guys” take advantage of a federal government that isn’t fast on the draw in dealing with threats to Indian sovereignty and which can lead to Indian leaders being cheated out of power.