Chukchansi tribe leaders' styles fuel dispute

The Fresno BeeJune 15, 2013 

The three leaders vying for control of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians — and its $9 million-a-month haul from its Madera County casino — have undeniably different styles.

Reggie Lewis, 62, conducts business from a high-rent, north Fresno office that has a sweeping view of the San Joaquin River. He has control of the tribe's multimillion-dollar bank accounts.

Nancy Ayala, 46, holds meetings in a windowless portable building near the tribe's Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, which opened in 2003 along Highway 41 near Coarsegold. Ayala controls the daily casino profits, which she no longer deposits in the tribe's bank accounts for Lewis to use.

Morris Reid, 72, keeps tabs on the tribe from his Fresno home near Saint Agnes Medical Center. He has neither access to the bank accounts nor the casino profits.

While all three agree that in-fighting is bad for business, none of them are willing to step aside.

The power struggle has led to charges — and counter charges — of embezzlement that, in Ayala's estimation, will put the casino in bankruptcy within a year if the leadership issue isn't resolved.

Now, Lewis has upped the ante, said Ayala, who described the dispute as "a chess match."

For years, Lewis opposed the North Fork Rancheria Band of Mono Indians' plan to put a swanky casino resort along Highway 99 north of Madera because it would cut into the Chukchansi tribe's profits.

As recently as May, Lewis sent out a newsletter to tribal members voicing his opposition. But now, Ayala said, he is trying to cut a deal with the North Fork tribe "for his own personal gain."

"He's a traitor. He's not only selling out his mother, he is selling out the entire tribe," she said.

Lewis and Elaine Bethel Fink, chairwoman of the North Fork tribe, didn't return several calls from The Bee seeking response to Ayala's charge.

Outsiders like Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up For California!, which opposes the proposed Highway 99 casino, say the Chukchansi power struggle illustrates the problems that come with Indian casinos. Schmit's group is based in Penryn, north of Sacramento, and was formed in 1996 to lobby for the strong ties between governments and tribes when it comes to gambling operations.

Schmit, too, has heard of a potential deal between the Chukchansi and North Fork tribes.

"There's millions of dollars at stake and everyone wants it," she said. "It's like watching a train wreck."

Independence at stake

Reid, who has been involved in tribal leadership — and upheavals — since the 1990s when the Chukchansi casino was first planned, says the current fight could have even bigger implications: It could convince California voters, who have long embraced Indian gaming, to have second thoughts about it.

"I can see us (Indians) losing everything," he said.

To understand the dispute, a quick history lesson. The tribe's website says the Chukchansi people have inhabited the San Joaquin Valley and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada for more then 12,000 years.

The federal government set aside land, called The "Rancheria at Picayune" for the Chukchansi in 1912. But starting in the 1950s, the tribe's relationship with the federal government was terminated. Tribal sovereignty was ignored and segments of the "rancheria" property were taken and often sold, with minimal compensation.

As a result of a lawsuit, called Tillie Hardwick v. the United States, the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians' federal status was restored in 1983. In a few years, the tribe became federally recognized with its own constitution.

Ayala is a direct descendant of original Chukchansi tribe members.

Because the tribe is a sovereign nation, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has been reluctant to intervene in a tribal election, said Reid, who was first elected to the council in 1989 and has been on and off of it for 14 years.

In 1992, tribal council Chairwoman Jane Wyatt was recalled after missing meetings and firing staff, and the recall was upheld by the BIA. Reid, who was elected to the council when Wyatt was ousted, said Friday that back then Wyatt wanted to disenroll tribe members. Wyatt is Ayala's aunt, Reid said.

"That's why I don't trust Ayala," Reid said. "Everyone knows it is her goal to disenroll members because her family believes the tribe belongs to them."

Reid said he also doesn't trust Lewis, because he too might disenroll critics of his government.

Ayala's stake

The quest for power over the estimated 900-member tribe has exploded into violent skirmishes among tribe members in recent years, including a riot at the tribe's casino compound in February 2012.

The current upheaval began shortly after last December's election, when the tribe elected Ayala, chair; Lewis, vice chair; Tracy Brechbuehl, secretary; Karen Wynn, treasurer; and members-at-large Chance Alberta, Charles Sargosa and Carl "Buzz" Bushman.

First, the council voted in January to suspend Wynn and Brechbuehl for "ethics violations." Ayala signed the suspension papers, but says she now regrets it, explaining Lewis and his faction trumped up the charges against Wynn and Brechbuehl after she and others began questioning Lewis' and Alberta's expenditures.

"I felt pressured," she said recently. "I should have questioned them."

Then, at a February tribal meeting, Ayala announced a referendum signed by 14 descendants of the original rancheria landholders. Ayala dissolved the council and installed her mother, Holly Wyatt, aunt Jane Wyatt, and other relatives as council members. She then announced plans to disenroll about 850 people.

Lewis, Alberta and Bushman left the meeting and later set up their own government at the swank office near Nees and Palm avenues in north Fresno.

Ayala reinstated Wynn and Brechbuehl; with Sargosa, they formed a quorum in support of Ayala. Meantime, the Lewis faction added Irene Waltz to form a quorum.

Ayala said recently she made a mistake to dissolve the council and announce plans to disenroll members. She points out that the BIA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal agencies recognize her council quorum.

Last week, HUD listed Ayala as the tribal leader in awarding the Chukchansi Rancheria Housing Authority $954,966 in a nationwide federal grant program. "Though the casino turns a profit, we still have many members who lack adequate housing, and have poor drinking water and roads," Ayala said about how the HUD grant will help.

Whether she can regain control of the tribe is yet to be seen.

Lewis' stake

Lewis, who has been on the council continuously since December 2009, said recently that more than 50% of the tribe's estimated 760 voting members have reaffirmed his council as the tribe's governing body.

"While they have tried to disenroll members, I have done everything for the benefit of the tribe," Lewis said last week.

He and Alberta control the tribe's investment arm, called Chukchansi Inc. For years, the tribe has invested about $135,000 a month into the corporation.

Ayala said she has proof that Lewis and Alberta have misspent more than $3 million of the corporation's money.

"They're spending $20,000 a month on the north Fresno office," said Brechbuehl.

Ayala said she also has receipts to prove Alberta has been spending $10,000 a month on Robert Watts, a "life coach," who teaches innovation, teamwork and problem-solving.

In addition, Ayala said Lewis has a fetish for guns. He has a lot of them, she said.

In an interview last week at the north Fresno office, Lewis and Alberta declined to address Ayala's complaints. Instead, they talked about the tribe's investments. Among them: Sportsmen's Den sporting goods stores in Oakhurst and Mariposa; Yosemite Lumber in Oakhurst; Mighty Builders, a commercial construction company licensed to do work in California, Nevada and Hawaii; and Mighty Oak Capital, a financing company in California.

Stepping out

This week, Chukchansi Inc. plans to unveil a coffee and a chocolate/elderberry treat at the Res California conference for American Indian economic development. The conference is at the Pechanga Resort & Casino outside the Southern California city of Temecula.

Ayala doesn't plan to attend. She's upset that the Lewis faction is bank-rolling the conference and Alberta and Watts are keynote speakers.

Ayala said the Lewis faction doesn't have a legal right to rule. She said an April referendum where Lewis said he gained majority support from tribal members was rife with fraud and alleged payouts to Lewis' supporters.

In addition, she said when Lewis, Alberta and Bushman stormed out of the February meeting, they did not have a legal quorum to set up a government per the tribe's constitution. Therefore they did not have the right to install Waltz on their council or to hold an election to reaffirm their council.

In March, turmoil over leadership led Rabobank to freeze the tribe's bank account. This put the tribe at risk of defaulting on roughly $310 million in bonds for the casino.

Ayala's faction pays the tribe's bills. Since February, when she quit putting money into the bank account, her group has been paying with cash — vendors, workers, tribal members and anyone else owed money from Chukchansi. Ayala has petitioned the U.S. District Court in Fresno to stop Lewis from spending the tribe's money.

"We are the tribe's true council," Ayala said. "They are impostors who are spending the tribe's money for their own personal gain."

But last week, a federal judge gave Lewis the right to intervene in Ayala's lawsuit. Lewis said if he prevails in court, his plan is to oust Ayala and her council from the casino compound. He then wants to level it and keep the tribe's operation in the north Fresno office.

"That place has been the site of too many fights, too much bad blood, " Lewis said. "It's time for the tribe to move on."

"There's millions of dollars at stake and everyone wants it. It's like watching a train wreck." — Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up For California!

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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