Judge orders briefings on North Fork casino plan

An artist rendering of the proposed North Fork Rancheria Resort & Casino.
An artist rendering of the proposed North Fork Rancheria Resort & Casino. Submitted photo

The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians filed another complaint challenging the right of the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians to develop a casino on trust land near the City of Madera earlier this month.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment to stop the development, claiming the Mono’s Madera parcel does not constitute Indian lands for gaming as per the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), and that the proposed facility would cause financial harm to Chukchansi’s gaming facility, taking away many of their guests.

The complaint, filed July 1 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District in Sacramento, will be heard by Judge Anthony W. Ishii. Ishii is the same judge that ruled in November the state had to negotiate a new gaming compact with the North Fork tribe after an earlier compact was rejected by state voters in a statewide ballot initiative.

This initiative was financially supported by other casinos, including Chukchansi and Table Mountain, and was managed by the self-proclaimed gaming watchdog group Stand Up for California.

Judge Ishii has ordered the state and the the Mono tribe’s financial backers, Stations Casions of Las Vegas, to show why the development should be allowed.

“What is being attempted by the billionaire owners of Station Casinos is shameful,” Chukchansi Tribal Chairwoman Claudia Gonzales said in a release. “They are attempting to buy the sovereignty of a tribe. We will continue to fight to keep tribal sovereignty in the hands of tribal nations.”

According to a spokesman for the Mono tribe, the Chukchansi tribe and Stand Up for California have filed five lawsuits in state and federal courts seeking to stop or delay the North Fork project.

The suits began in 2012 when Chukchansi challenged Gov. Jerry Brown’s concurrence with the Department of the Interior’s decision to take the land into trust for the North Fork Rancheria.

These lawsuits are in addition to Proposition 48, a 2014 statewide referendum to allow the California Legislature’s enactment of AB 277 that ratified the 2012 North Fork Rancheria Compact. Chukchansi and its allies provided nearly $20 million in funding.

“These legal actions are required because North Fork’s backers are ignoring existing law and the will of California’s voters who overwhelmingly rejected the plan just a few years ago,” Gonzales said. “Judge Ishii’s order is a good indication that our concerns about the North Fork plan, which are shared by tribes throughout the state, are valid and of real concern to the court.

“We will fight to ensure that tribal gaming regulations respect real tribal sovereignty and prevent the proliferation of off-reservation gaming in the state,” Gonzales added.

North Fork response

The North Fork tribe’s public response to these lawsuits over the years has been fairly muted, electing to hold comments until all of the suits are decided by the courts.

But in a prepared statement, North Fork Rancheria Tribal Chairperson Maryann McGovran said all the legal maneuvering of Chukchansi boils down to one thing - fear of competition.

“These most recent outrageous comments from Chukchansi, together with their overall strategy which frankly undermines tribal rights nationally, really are just an attempt to deflect attention from the real story here - Chukchansi’s desperate attempts to forestall the inevitable competition by wasting their tribal citizens’ money on two more lawsuits and endless pleadings in pending cases rather than focusing on building the very best casino possible for their customers, workers, and community,” McGovran said.

McGovran said her tribe has always followed - and will continue to follow - the statutory process to be able to conduct class III gaming on the land in their trust.

“Compared to the combative and litigious approach of some tribes, our respectful, collaborative, transparent approach has earned the support and respect of our county government officials, chambers of commerce, and neighbors,” McGovran said.

McGovran said while the tribe does not comment on pending litigation, she felt obligated to respond to the latest claims made by Chukchansi about her tribe and development partner.

“Our tribe was a strong, established, stable sovereign government already pursuing tribal gaming long before we selected Station Casinos, the recognized industry leader in developing successful tribal gaming operations,” McGovran said. “North Fork’s tribal sovereignty and government is sound and secure and has nothing to do with our development partner.”

The Picayune Tribe has had its share of legal and financial woes over the years, and Chukchansi’s external battles against North Fork have occurred against a backdrop of internal politics, including tribal disenrollment.

The tribe has also fought through financial issues including lawsuits from unpaid subcontractors and creditors, defaults on bond interest payments, legal battles with Madera County, and dueling tribal councils that led to a hostile take-over of Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino that forced the facility to be shut down for more than a year.

“It’s sad for Indian Country to watch all the trials and tribulations Chukchansi has gone through over the last few years,” McGovran said. “They are North Fork’s relatives and it’s sad to think that in the end, all of that tribal money will be wasted when it could have been better spent fulfilling the true promise of Indian gaming ... helping Indian people and building strong tribes and communities.”

Chukchansi held its latest council elections October 3, and no leadership conflicts have been reported since then.