Two Chukchansi leaders, each claiming to be the rightful chairperson of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, remain at odds this week, with each raising concerns about how the tribe's money is being handled.
Reggie Lewis' tribal council maintains control of the tribe's bank accounts, and Nancy Ayala's tribal council has maintained control of security and management at Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, along with many members of the tribal gaming commission -- although Lewis' council said many of these individuals, including Ayala, were suspended by a quorum of the tribal council last month, and should not be conducting business on behalf of the tribe.
Lewis' group has alleged that casino cash is being mismanaged under the direction of Ayala.
The alleged mismanagement includes: hoarding casino cash in casino cages instead of depositing it into the financial institution that maintains the tribe's deposit control accounts -- mandated by agreements the tribe has with its casino bondholders; opening a new account with a small Fresno area bank to deposit cash, which is not authorized by tribal agreements in place; and suing the tribe's depository bank in a "kangaroo tribal court created overnight," stated a recent letter from Lewis to tribal members.
"Thank goodness they don't have the authority to bring such a lawsuit because they would have created a bad act under our indenture (with the casino's bondholders) and the tribe would lose all of its government funding as a result ($1 million a month from casino profits)," said Rob Rosette of Rosette Attorneys at Law, the firm representing the council led by Lewis.
A $17,000 check to Ayala's attorney was also illegally cashed at the casino because the banks that hold the tribe's accounts do not allow Ayala to access the tribal funds, said Richard Verri, lawyer with Rosette Attorneys at Law.
"The legal issues created by the Ayala faction over the past week now go far beyond the issue of who the leadership is of the tribe," Rosette said. "The Ayala faction's actions demonstrate a complete and blatant disregard for the tribe's obligations to its bondholders and other partners, as well as state and federal laws ...
"The Ayala faction doesn't have legitimate access to money or cash, so that's why they have set up a system to hoard cash at the casino cage, and then use that cash to pay all the bills, so she's (Ayala) in a huge 'Catch 22.'"
Ayala's group did not respond Tuesday to questions about these allegations.
During a press conference with Ayala last week, Dyann Eckstein -- chairwoman of the Tribal Gaming Commission who was suspended by the Lewis council but is recognized by Ayala's council -- said the commission is investigating Lewis and Alberta regarding their dealings with Chukchansi Inc.
"The commission also has an open investigation into some of the financial issues with casino's vendors including, Chukchansi Inc., and Chance Alberta and Reggie Lewis are part of our investigation and we are looking into possible violations of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribal-state compact, and the tribal gaming ordinance," said Eckstein last week. "And because it's an ongoing investigation, I can not comment on any of that at this time."
"I heard they are demanding investigations of the tribal council," Rosette said in response. "However, the tribal council is agreeing to any and all investigations. The legitimate tribal council has nothing to hide. The Ayala faction is simply making any accusation they can to try and show some semblance of credibility."
The leadership split
The catalyst of the leadership split occurred during a tribal business meeting Feb. 21 -- when a petition was brought forth, signed by as many as 24 tribal members, calling for a new tribal council, on grounds that only 46 members of the tribe were found to be legally enrolled with complete tribal files.
The petition, supported by Ayala, called for ousting six of the seven tribal council members, including those that were elected by about 750 Chukchansi people in December.
The new council announced in the petition was made up of Wyatt/Ramirez family members, including the previously-elected Ayala.
Since then, Ayala's council has changed its makeup several times. During a press conference last week, Ayala announced her council was no longer made up of Wyatt/Ramirez members.
Ayala said her council is now comprised of herself, Charles Sargosa, and Karen Wynn and Tracey Brechbuehl -- who were both suspended by tribal council in January, pending an investigation regarding financial "improprieties."
Lawyer Verri said Ayala did not have the authority to bring back the suspended Wynn and Brechbuehl. According to the tribe's laws, that could only have occurred after their investigation was complete, and only if a majority of the acting tribal council vote to bring them back during their suspension hearings, Verri said.
"Nancy Ayala was suspended for her illegal actions," wrote Lewis in a recent letter to tribal members. "When her coup to take over the tribe failed, Nancy Ayala immediately brokered deals with other suspended and former tribal council members to lift each other's suspensions and give each other's family members jobs. The bondholders and banks doing business with the tribe recognized that Nancy Ayala's tribal council was illegal and recognized the tribal council consisting of only the following active members: Reggie Lewis, Carl Bushman, Charles Sargosa and Chance Alberta."
Although Sargosa has chosen not to conduct business as a tribal council member with the Lewis council, he is legally still considered a tribal council member because he has not resigned and is not suspended, Verri said.
"I understand that a lot of misrepresentation and disinformation has gone out to our tribal membership, to different various agencies of the government, including the BIA and NIGC," said Ayala in last week's press conference. "These are all false allegations, and what I consider smoke and mirrors, which is confusing a lot of issues surrounding the governance of this tribe."
"The Ayala faction is not acting rationally or on behalf of the tribe," said lawyer Rosette. "They are just pulling every trick they have to exert leverage."