Judge orders Chukchansi to remain closed

A federal judge in Fresno on Wednesday issued a preliminary injunction requested by the state government to keep Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino closed.

U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill presided over a brief hearing Wednesday morning about the closure, triggered Oct. 9 when an armed group representing one of competing tribal leadership raided the hotel-casino in search of documents related to late audits that have not been filed with the federal government.

The hearing — a follow-up to an Oct. 15 meeting — lasted barely an hour. O’Neill noted it was clear the warring factions had made little or no progress in settling their disputes.

The judge said there are no signs pointing to progress being made by the factions, especially the McDonald and Lewis-Ayala groups, whose security forces fought in a busy casino nearly three weeks ago. The casino was closed by orders from the state Attorney General and the National Indian Gaming Commission because safety of patrons and employees could not be assured.

“If ever there were irrefutable proof of the need for the injunction to continue, it would be the opposition documents received from the McDonald faction,” the judge wrote in his nine-page order issued at noon. “The McDonald faction argues that its incursion was a lawful effort to evict ‘trespassers’ from the casino, namely members of the Lewis-Ayala faction and the ‘mercenary’ private security service.”

He said the McDonald faction’s view “belies any semblance of truth or reasonableness.” “It is simply an admission that the emotional and explosive keg that existed the day before the armed and illegal takeover that occurred Oct. 9, 2014, still exists.”

O’Neill said the McDonald factions actions “constituted the worst sort of street injustice.”

He described the McDonald group as “illegal aggressors,” who “continue to claim their misbehavior was both legal and responsible. It is that faction that continues to be the threat to public safety.”

When the McDonald security forces entered on Oct. 9, there were about 500 patrons and employees inside the 1,800-slot, 40-table casino and hotel.

During the hearing, the judge referred to a declaration filed by Deputy Attorney General William Torngren indicating that at least one member of the Lewis-Ayala security forces was armed with a gun. Other guns also were found on the casino grounds, too, in possession of the Lewis-Ayala faction’s security forces, the declaration said.

The animosity is not one-sided.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Lewis-Ayala faction lawyer Rob Rosette described the McDonald group as having “unclean hands,” referring to their armed entry into the casino. He said the McDonald faction used their entry to earn legal standing.

The McDonald faction was attempting to gain control of gaming commission offices to unearth audit information. It had had sole control of the casino until Aug. 24, when members of the Lewis group entered the casino in the wee hours and holed up in offices and suites in the hotel’s 10th and 11th floors.

The National Indian Gaming Commission issued a temporary closure order on Oct. 7, requiring the tribe to submit two years of late audits by Oct. 27 or else risk casino closure. The tribe sent the audits to the NIGC on Monday. The NIGC is now reviewing the audit documents.

The judge backed up the state Attorney General’s Office, which filed a request that O’Neill extend the closure until the tribe can ensure that weapons are kept away from the Coarsegold casino and that patrons, employees and tribal members are safe.

“All evidence points to the tensions and confrontations continuing, not abating,” says the 14-page brief, filed by Torngren.

This story will be updated.

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