California Tribe’s Power Struggle Causes Casino to Close

Another California tribe, the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians, has become embroiled in a power struggle between factions; a struggle that has led to its Rolling Hills Casino (l.) being closed until who legally runs it is sorted out.

Internal divisions in the power structure of the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians in Corning, California, have led to the temporary closing of the Rolling Hills Casino, amidst accusations of embezzlement.

Several weeks ago the non-Indian casino management made accusations that some tribal members were embezzling funds from the casino. According to some members of the tribal council the charges were orchestrated by an attorney who has been involved in the political unrest at other tribes in the state, such as the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians.

Several members of the tribal council walked out of the annual General Council Meeting in April when the chairman, Andrew Freeman, departed from the agenda and announced that members of a prominent family (the Henthorn/Pata/Lohse families) would be disenrolled from the tribe.

The chairman claimed that by leaving the meeting that the council members, including vice chairman David Swearinger, had effectively resigned. After the council members left the meeting Freeman attempted to disenroll the three families and to remove the council members.

Armed guards were hired to stand outside of the casino and other tribal businesses and bar the council members from entering.

However, within two weeks both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission sent letters to the tribe confirming that the original council (Chairman Andrew Freeman, Vice Chairman David Swearinger, Treasurer Leslie Lohse, Secretary Geraldine Freeman and Member-at-Large Allen Swearinger) was the only legal authority of the tribe.

The NIGC also expressed concerns that the casino was being run by non-tribal management. Its director of compliance, Douglas Hatfield, wrote that he was concerned that the casino, “is not being conducted by the Band—that is, by the governmental authority recognized by the Secretary of the Interior—or by an entity licensed by the tribal government pursuant to NIGC regulations.”

Freeman went to court to obtain a temporary restraining to bar the treasurer, Leslie Lohse, and other tribal members from the Rancheria and its businesses. The Superior Court Judge denied the request.

Following that action Vice Chairman Swearinger issued this statement, “This was a legal maneuver, pure and simple.  They wanted the court to validate the unlawful actions taken against some of our tribal members, trying to exclude some of our families from all aspects of tribal activities.” He added, “The allegations were ridiculous, and ultimately the judge shut it down.”

Meanwhile, the tribal council has met and voted to create a tribal court and tribal police department and to appoint a new judge and police chief. It has also moved to take control of tribal assets. Chairman Freeman has missed three consecutive meetings and the council cites the tribal constitution to assert that he vacated the post as of May 9.

The council filed a lawsuit in the new tribal court to prevent the former chairman, the non-tribal casino managers and their armed guards from conducting business on the Rancheria or interfering with the council.

However, the casino remains closed by order of the NIGC and the casino management refuses to acknowledge the authority of the tribal council.

Swearinger claims his group is trying to work out an accommodation with the splinter group but that its members refuse to negotiation or submit to mediation.

He also condemns press releases put out by the splinter group accusing tribal members of fraud and embezzlement and claiming that the District Attorney and Tehama Sheriff’s Department are investigating those claims. Those statements are false, says Swearinger.

According to Swearinger, quoted by Nassau News Live, “Our mission from the get-go was to continue operations as peacefully as possible. Unfortunately, our former chairman has responded with more guards and more guns. What we are seeking is a dialogue and to secure the safety of the safety of the employees, patrons and tribal members working at the casino.  The infrastructure that we’re putting in place makes certain our government has the ability to not only enact, but enforce, Tribal laws.”

The new tribal police chief, Clay Parker, says the NIGC and BIA validation of the tribal authority is key, and “the rest is really just misinformation.”