Members of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians in California’s gold country are working to try to reopen the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, which was closed by tribal infighting last October.
One of the most vocal tribal member is Tex McDonald, who recently pleaded guilty to charges of false imprisonment in connection with an armed raid he led in October that led to the state and federal governments closing the casino and was released for time served after eight months in jail.
A dozen armed men who took part in the incursion were later arrested. Most have agreed to plea bargains, although three others will be going to trial in the fall.
McDonald, who continues to maintain that he is the legal leader of the tribe, nevertheless has been talking with members of rival factions about how to reopen the casino. According to witnesses, the meetings “have not gone well.”
Last week he told KFSN, “Our goal is to open the casino, that’s what our council wants, to open the casino. But everybody has to work together to do it. That is the main problem we are facing right now.”
The tribe’s Chukchansi Economic Development Authority (CEDA) announced last week that it expects to complete an agreement with the National Indian Gaming Commission and has worked out a $35 million deal with lenders to front the reopening funds at 12 percent interest.
This loan would be added onto the $250 million loan that the tribe has been paying on since 2012. Under its terms the tribe pays $12 million twice a year. The tribe missed its March payment. The tribe compares this to taking out a second mortgage on a house.
CEDA has hired Christian Goode from Ivory Gaming to manage the casino and be chief operating officer. According to Goode, quoted by the Fresno Bee, “They did spend time keeping it up, doing preventive maintenance so systems wouldn’t go bad. It was properly maintained to the extent possible.”
Four hundred of the 1,800 slots have been taken away by the companies that leased them. However, said Goode, “Bringing back leased machines is not an issue. They are excited about getting product back out.”
When the casino closed that meant that over 1,000 employees were out of work. Many of them are hoping to get their old jobs back if the casino reopens.
Goode says that most of them could be brought back if the facility reopens. . “A good portion of those who want to come back to work can come back very quickly; it’s something that shouldn’t be too big of a challenge,” Goode told the Bee.
According to Reggie Lewis, tribal council chairman, “These are just the first steps on our journey to provide our tribal members with opportunity and economic stability that will pave the way to self sufficiency for generations.” He added, “We are very excited to have secured world-class partners to assist us in achieving our goals.”
Lewis is the interim chairman of the interim council that has been recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs until an election can be held in October.
Gareth Lacy, deputy press secretary for California Governor Jerry Brown commented last week that the governor’s office is working with the tribe on reopening the casino. “Our priority is to help ensure the facility reopens under circumstances that protect the safety of patrons, employees and tribal members. We are in ongoing conversations and cannot discuss details at this time.”
Madera County, whose sheriff’s department was strained to the breaking point by frequent visits to the casino and reservation last year, says that it supports opening the casino, but is reluctant to recognize a tribal council as the tribe’s official authority.
In a letter signed by Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rogers, the county said, “We understand that the Chukchansi tribe is presently securing funding and taking steps to establish the lawful governing body of the Chukchansi tribe,” adding, “Madera County is committed to working with the Chukchansi tribe to develop an agreement once those endeavors are finalized.”
But it refused to pick sides. “No nontribal entity, whether it be federal, state or local, can authoritatively determine who the governing body of the Chukchansi tribe is. Only the tribe can do that,” said the letter. “Until such time the tribe itself agrees on which council or other group constitutes its legal governing body, Madera County will not attempt to do so.”
The October election remains controversial, despite the 4-3 the tribal council to allow those who took part in the 2010 election to participate. Since 2010 as many as 150 tribal members have been “dis-enrolled,” meaning they are no longer considered legal members.
According to Lewis, “You have to be a member to vote and those people from 2010 are not members. Just because the Bureau of Indian Affairs made a decision to recognize the 2010 council doesn’t mean you have to go back to the people who voted in 2010.”
Two factions, the McDonald Group and the Ramirez family, have not agreed that the Lewis council is legal.
In fact, several tribal offices continue to be occupied by the McDonald group and last week a federal judge refused to choose sides in the dispute and evict them.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence O’Neill has issued an order that created a weapons free zone around the casino and adjacent properties to keep the factions separated. This allows tribal employees to be paid and for the tribe to pay its bills.
In spite of being recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the interim council, the Lewis council has been unable to get the McDonald faction to evacuate the buildings it occupies.
Last week Judge O’Neill refused a request to issue such an order. In refusing the request he wrote, “The request is not for a clarification, but rather is for a dramatic escalation of this court’s involvement in the business and operation of the casino. They make this request without providing any authority, jurisdictional or otherwise, to support such an intervention by this Court.”
O’Neill was the judge who ordered the casino shut down as posing a danger to public health and safety. However he said he couldn’t justify evicting the McDonald faction. “The court can identify absolutely no authority to support such an exercise of its jurisdiction,” he wrote.