Politics & Government

Calif. casino to remain closed for now

Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, shut down amid a sometimes violent breakdown in tribal leadership, will remain closed for at least a couple more weeks, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

Federal Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill, who issued a temporary restraining order Friday to close Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino because he believed the health and safety of patrons could not be protected, told lawyers and representatives from the competing leadership factions of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians to file motions and return to a followup hearing Oct. 29.

The state Attorney General’s office and the National Indian Gaming Commission closed the casino to customers Friday after a fight between two tribal factions forced 500 patrons to leave the casino and hotel Thursday night — some with money on the table and chips to cash in.

Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said his office wouldn’t filing any criminal complaints at the hearing.

Anderson said it would probably be “a week or two” before any charges are made because investigators are working to identify people on the hotel-casino’s security surveillance videos.

More than 200 people had gathered inside or outside the courthouse Wednesday afternoon. The main courtroom, along with another courtroom set up to handle the crowd, were packed by 1:30 p.m. About 40 people -- about a dozen picketing and holding signs – were outside about 2 p.m.

“Our tribe is at an all-time low,” member Nicolette Griffith outside the courthouse. “I believe membership, we are supporting stopping the war. I’m pretty sure everyone is at this point. We’re tired of it, embarrassed, the shame we felt to see ourselves on the news.

“Our leadership is fighting, it’s heartbreaking. Our friends, our neighbors, our own communities – we are apologizing to them. I apologize to anyone who works for the tribe in any manner. Sorry this mess has affected you, too.”

Nancy Ayala, co-chair of one of the competing tribal councils, said of the hotel-casino closure: “It’s devastating. I can’t cry enough. It’s tough to think politics had something to do with this stuff. It’s a hard burden to bear.”

Harold Hammond, 75, a former tribal council member ousted by one of the factions in 2011, when the current political infighting began, said of the feuding groups: “They are not leaders, they are thugs.”

Reggie Lewis, the other co-chair with Ayala of a tribal council, said he hopes the judge will allow the casino to reopen soon. Tribal members and surrounding communities depend on casino revenues, he said.

Lewis said he doesn’t know what to expect at the hearing. Other tribes that have had their casinos shut down have seen closures from weeks to years, he said.

On Tuesday, regulators were in the 1,800-slot, 42-table hotel-casino along with a skeleton crew of about 100 employees.

Early Wednesday afternoon, the Picayune Rancheria tribal properties, including the casino, remained quiet, said Erica Stuart, Madera County sheriff’s spokeswoman.

“Law enforcement remains on site securing tribal land as we stated we would do when the factions were served,” Stuart said.

The tribal council led by Lewis and Ayala took control of the hotel’s 11th floor about seven weeks ago. Lewis said he and his fellow leaders were led into the hotel by tribal gaming officials.

But David Leibowitz, spokesman for the tribal council led by Tex McDonald, said the group was walked in by a commission appointed by the opposing faction.

Outside the courthouse Wednesday morning, he asked, “What sovereign nation would tolerate that?”

Leibowitz said McDonald’s group had been running the day-to-day operations at the tribal offices and that what he described as the “rogue” faction, which had been operating from Fresno, forced itself upon the casino.

What followed was an armed infiltration of the casino by the McDonald group Thursday.

Less than 10 people had gathered outside the courthouse shortly before 11 a.m. for a tribal member rally that was expected to draw about 100 people.

Members must be operating on “Indian time,” Lewis said.