Chukchansi casino cleared to reopen

The National Indian Gaming Commission announced this week a settlement agreement with the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, which cleared the way for a reopening of the tribe’s Coarsegold casino that was shut down last year.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill issued an order that cleared all closure orders; the final step before the reopening process can begin.

“Upon the NIGC’s lifting the Closure Order, the Tribe may operate the casino,” O’Neill wrote.

When the casino is reopened, more than 1,000 employees will be able to return to work. No date has been set, but tribal officials hint at early January.

“This is one of the main things that we’ve been facing for the last two months,” said Claudia Gonzales, tribal chairwoman. “We have a real positive outlook on all of this ... we want to open sooner than later, to restore our tribe’s main economic driver and bring back jobs.”

The casino was closed by the NIGC and others Oct. 10, 2014 when a faction with hired security forces raided the facility a day earlier, causing a tumultuous situation between rival tribal groups that threatened the safety of customers and staff.

Many of the raiding group were arrested, and all the cases have since been settled or dismissed, most for misdemeanor charges.

NIGC chairman Jonodev Chaudhuri also issued notices of violation and a temporary closure order because the tribe had failed to submit annual independent audits, financial statements, and agreed-upon procedure reports for fiscal years 2012 and 2013.

Those statements were missing during tenures by former leaders and council members, which were replaced earlier this year in a tribal election.

The new council’s main goal is to reopen the casino as quickly as possible, in order to pay off hundreds of millions in debt.

The NIGC settlement agreement resolves tribal issues and seeks to ensure the ongoing health and safety of the gaming operation and its employees and patrons.

It allows the tribe to reopen the facility, but only under certain conditions. A major step is the tribe’s agreement to pay a $19.8 million fine, which was negotiated down to $500,000, Gonzales said.

However, if anything threatens the health and safety of the casino’s patrons or employees, closure orders will be immediately reinstated and the entire fine will be due.

If deadlines on the agreement are not met, all gaming activity must cease, NIGC officials said in a prepared statement released Monday afternoon.

Many of some 1,000 employees have already been rehired, and much of the internal work with the casino has been completed, casino officials said.

“I’d say that’s a heck of a Christmas present to have 1,000 jobs back, or so,” District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler added. “This is a big, big deal for my citizens and for the county.”

Around 800 of the employees are expected to be hired from Madera County, 250 of them from Eastern Madera County, after they lost their jobs last year.

Before its closure, the casino generated around $100 million in annual revenue, and operated on a yearly payroll of about $32 million. In 15 months of being closed, that nets about $122 million in lost revenue.

Late last month, the tribe and Madera County agreed to revisit a Memorandum of Understanding, allowing for additional payments by the tribe, though not as much as asked by the Board of Supervisors.

Contentions over tribal control also still exist, which may hamper the reopening process.

A 46-member group known as the “distributees,” who claim to be the tribe’s original founders, are opposed to the agreement, and contend it as well as the elected tribal council is illegal.

Should their contentions hold up in later court hearings, reopening the casino will remain a faroff goal.