Tribal conflict escalates as groups try to shut down casino - Appeal-Democrat: Corning Observer

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Tribal conflict escalates as groups try to shut down casino

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Posted: Tuesday, June 10, 2014 6:29 pm

As patrons of Rolling Hills Casino entered casino property on Monday, they were met by two opposing sets of hired armed security, Tehama County Sheriff's Office deputies and a very tense atmosphere.

By Tuesday, things appeared to have calmed down a bit, although all parties were still on hand.

One of the two sets of armed security was hired by the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians Tribal Council led by Chairman Andy Freeman. The other set of armed security, wearing "Tribal Police" shirts, was hired by four members of the Tribal Council ousted in April, and 76 tribal members from the Pata family suspended from the band on the alleged basis they are not of Paskenta Band blood lineage.

The "Tribal Police" were on hand to "close down the casino," according to the ousted Tribal Council.

Tehama County Sheriff's Lt. Dave Greer said deputies were on site to keep peace between the two feuding factions and their hired forces, without forming an alliance with either group.

"There have been some instances of shoving and pushing between the two hired securities, but we were on hand to put a stop to it right away," he said on Monday.

For nearly two months, the feud has been brewing between the tribe's two factions battling for governance and possession of the band's property and leadership.

Allegations of misconduct, mishandling of millions in tribal funds, casino machinery tampering and threats of employees being fired have been flying between the two opposing sides during that time.

On Monday, the battle escalated as the ousted Tribal Council tried to physically shut down or take back the casino, with the use of its hired "tribal police" force. The attempt appeared to have been thwarted by the presence of the sheriff's department and the sheer number of the Freeman-led faction which were on site guarding the casino's main doors.

The tribal police appeared to come on casino property as far as the front walkway leading to the main doors, but not inside the casino.

On Tuesday, the tribal police were parked on the road leading into the casino, but none appeared to be on casino property.

Also on Tuesday, the ousted Tribal Council claimed it had received a letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognizing them as the duly elected Tribal Council of the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians and the governing body of the Tribe. Those four members include Vice Chairman David Swearinger, Treasurer Leslie Lohse, Secretary Geraldine Freeman, and Member-at-large Allen Swearinger.

This group states they have been "excluded from governmental buildings and the tribe's casino by rogue casino management and attorneys for Chairman Andy Freeman."

"Thanks to the letter from the BIA, and our coordination with local law enforcement, we are hopeful that order can be restored quickly," David Swearinger said. "We have a long way to go to get our tribal government back on track. But taking back our assets and having clarity regarding our leadership is a strong first step."

Andrew Alejandre, secretary of Freeman's Tribal Council, said as he and other tribal members are standing outside the casino's main entrance because, "we, the blood lineage members of the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians, are here to show our overwhelming support of the band's tribal government."

The government he is referring to is the one voted into leadership by the Tribe's General Council in April and May, Vice Chair Leticia Miller, Treasurer Ambrosia Rico, Andrew Alejandre Secretary, and Member-at-Large Natasha Magana, lead by Chairman Andy Freeman.

On Tuesday, one member of the tribe standing outside the casino doors, said she didn't know how long the "stand-off" was going to last, so tribal members were taking shifts standing at the casino's main entrance.

Alejandre described the ousted tribal council and members' "tactics as a diversion from the controversy" of their alleged mishandling of tribal funds.

Bruce Thomas, chief executive officer of the casino, called the ousted members' actions "terrorism.

"What they are doing is embarrassing to the name of the tribe and the casino," he said. "But we appreciate the public's support in that our patrons are still coming to the casino as we remain open for business as usual."

Thomas said as a show of appreciation, the casino is planning to offer some extra special promotions for its patrons.

David Swearinger, a member of the ousted tribal council, said, "Our number one priority is public safety, and that is why the physical closure of the casino is necessary. It is not safe."

Swearinger, his brother, Allen Swearinger, and Geraldine Freeman, also members of the ousted tribal council, are of blood lineage of the Paskenta Band, but have chosen to side with ousted council member, Leslie Lohse, and other members of the Pata family.

The Freeman-lead faction is also accusing the ousted tribal council and Pata family of sabotaging the casino's and tribe's computer system and gaming machines in May.

"When questioned by the FBI, they admitted to putting a virus in our computer systems," said Freeman's Tribal Council Vice Chairperson Leticia Miller.

Lohse denies those allegations, and many other allegations made against her and the ousted membership.

"I have never been questioned by the FBI," she said on Monday. "That is totally false. We did remotely shut down the casino's gaming server on May 9, and when we did that we reported our actions to all federal, state and local authorities that needed to be notified."

Swearinger said given the lack of action by officials at all levels of government, and the opposing side's refusal to negotiate, they decided to "take matters into our own hands."

He claims Monday's action was taken "in coordination with the Tehama County Sheriff's Department."

The sheriff's office said in a press release, "the Tehama County Sheriff's Office is dedicated to preserving public safety and has elected not to align itself with any particular group in this situation."

"The Tehama County Sheriff's Office has been in open dialogue with members of both groups and is aware of several incidences in the past weeks designed to disrupt the operation of the casino," said Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston. "Additionally, Sheriff (Dave) Hencratt has been in contact with state and federal authorities. At this time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has elected not to assert any authority over the situation."

Johnston said Sheriff Hencratt is aware of the allegations of mishandling of tribal funds, but has not initiated a formal investigation into the matter at this time.

"We are aware of an independent forensic audit being conducted and will reevaluate that issue when the report is finalized," he stated.

Both sides of the battle have claimed efforts to resolve the conflict through peaceful discussion and due process per the tribe's Constitution, but each side also claims a lack of cooperation from the opposing faction.

Former Tehama County Sheriff Clay Parker announced his resignation as police chief of the ousted tribal council members on Friday, saying he did so as "all means and modes of peaceful resolution had been exhausted" in bringing a resolution to the conflict.

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