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Epic Paskenta Dispute Continues, Despite BIA Cease and Desist Letter

A leadership and disenrollment fight in the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians of California has spiral out of control even with BIA involvement.

A nine-week leadership and disenrollment fight in the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians of California that threatened to spiral out of control into violence abated for a brief moment when the Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a cease and desist letter on June 9. That message ordered one faction to stop illegally operating the tribe’s Rolling Hills Casino, and stated that the agency recognized the elected tribal council as the tribe’s legitimate governing body, and would continue to do so until the tribe resolves its internal dispute according to its own laws and practices. But the BIA’s intervention did not end the dispute: an appeal of the cease and desist order was filed almost immediately and the conflict continues.

Troy Burdick, the superintendent of the BIA’s Sacramento office, issued the administrative cease-and-desist order in a letter based on information received from the State Attorney General's Office and the Tehama County Sheriff's Office.

Burdick said the BIA recognizes the last elected tribal council of Andrew Freeman, chairman; David Swearinger, vice chairman; Leslie Lohse, treasurer; Geraldine Freeman, secretary; and Allen Swearinger, member at large.

Andrew Freeman is at the center of the dispute, which began at the tribe’s annual meeting on April 12 at Carlino’s Event Center at Rolling Hills Casino in Corning, California.

According to witness statements in a lawsuit filed in tribal court against Andrew Freeman by his cousin, council member Geraldine Freeman and Ines Crosby, a Paskenta tribal member and Chair of the Board of Directors for the Rolling Hills Health Clinic and Dental Lab, Freeman went off the agenda at the meeting and tried to order tribal members with lineage to the Henthorn/Pata Family, including Crosby and council member Lohse, to be removed from the meeting. Then he “purported” to banish them from tribal lands, the lawsuit says, and the meeting descended into chaos.

“None of the remaining Councilmembers were aware of the Chairman’s unilateral proclamation, or understood the reasoning behind it; in shock, they objected,” the lawsuit says. “Chairman Freeman did not honor the objection of the four Council members or otherwise call the meeting to order, and pandemonium ensued.”

According to a witness statement, security officers from the casino and law enforcement officers from the sheriff’s office “swarmed” the place and took up positions behind the tribal council. “I could see [the Tribal Council] were being surrounded by the crowd and it didn’t look safe up there for anyone. The first three rows stood up and began yelling loudly,” the witness said.

Events, as described in the lawsuit, then became murky. The tribal council and general council adjourned the meeting – local police reports say the meeting was adjourned by 10:48 a.m. But the plaintiffs claim the minutes of the meeting were falsified to say that during that same time period Freeman said the council members who had left the meeting had abandoned their positions on the tribal council and should be removed immediately. The general council approved his resolution to remove them “by acclamation,” the lawsuit says. Then new council members were nominated and approved “by acclimation.”

Once the new tribal council members were sworn in and seated, Freeman said the next order of business was to consider whether the Henthorn/Pata family members had met “membership criteria,” according to a witness statement. The lawsuit quotes the minutes, which say, ”After a thorough discussion and questions and comments” the general council vote 60-1 to disenroll the family.

Soon after the meeting adjourned at around 10:50 a.m., the elected council members were notified that there had been a break in at the tribal office headquarters in Orland, California, the lawsuit says. When they got there they found out that Rolling Hills Casino security officers — including several defendants — had broken into the tribal office. “This would be the first of at least three break-ins, in a single week. Chairman Freeman was present,” the lawsuit says. City police were called to the scene by 11:09 a.m. “Before things got out of control, the Chairman and other duly elected Tribal Councilmembers agreed to have the locks changed and to give the key to Orland law enforcement for safekeeping until the situation could be mediated,” the lawsuit says.

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It’s not clear if the security officers who broke into the tribal office were charged.

What is clear is that by mid-April Andrew Freeman and his faction, which includes some casino executives who are not tribal members, were in control of the casino. On April 21, Douglas Hatfield, Director of Compliance at the National Indian Gaming Commission (“NIGC”) wrote to Andrew Freeman concerned “that the tribal government recognized by the BIA is not in control of the Band's gaming operation and remains excluded from the premises. I am concerned that the gaming at the Casino is not being conducted by the Band—that is, by the governmental authority recognized by the Secretary of the Interior—or by an entity licensed by the tribal government pursuant to NIGC regulations. If true, the federally recognized tribal government is being deprived of the sole proprietary interest in and responsibility for the gaming operation,” Hatfield wrote. He initiated an investigation to determine if a notice of non-compliance should be issued.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit filed May 7 against Andrew Freeman claims the chairman tried to "effect an illegal, hostile takeover, using armed men to exclude the tribe’s lawful, federally-recognized governing body from Paskenta lands and operations, in violation of tribal and federal law.” It says Freeman and the other defendants turned the tribe’s Paskenta’s lands into an armed camp that threatened the well-being of its citizens, guests, patrons and employees.

Andrew Freeman is now in the unique position of being recognized by the BIA as the chairman of the elected council whose members he tried to oust, one of whom has a pending lawsuit against him. And while recognized as the legitimate chairman by the BIA, NIGC and his elected tribal council colleagues, he is allegedly aligned with a group that has allegedly illegitimately seized control of the tribe’s casino. Seeking comment, ICTMN reached out to Freeman by phone, but he did not return the calls.

Tensions grew over the next month with encounters between tribal members and belligerent hired armed guards mounting. On June 6 Paskenta Police Chief Clay Parker resigned after a month on the job. “When I took the post I let everybody involved know that I would serve as Chief until all means and modes of peaceful resolution had been exhausted; and that any point when I realized that there would be no peaceful resolution to this discord, I would resign,” Parker said in a statement. “I have worked side by side with the duly elected Tribal Council and I have been very impressed by their efforts to call for tribal unity and work through the legal process. They have also engaged with State and Federal officials, who have not realized the urgency of making a decision. The four members of the Tribal Council have remained true to their resolve to maintain peace and call for a unified tribe. It has been an honor to serve as the Police Chief for the past month, but at this time I must step down. I do wish nothing but the best for the entire tribe."

 On June 9, at around 6 a.m., according to Burdick, around 15-uniformed sheriff's deputies arrived at the tribe’s Rolling Hills Casino responding to reports guards with assault rifles were blocking access to businesses on trust land and found the casino security force, including members of Zak's Security, a private company, had barricaded entrance roads to the casino. Soon after, around 15 vehicles arrived, marked "police" and "tribal police," Burdick wrote, using quotation marks for those phrases. The vehicles disgorged around 30 members of the “tribal police” force. “All are uniformed and all appear to be armed,” Burdick wrote. “At this point, the ‘tribal police’ force has covered the entire perimeter of the Casino property. The primary confrontation at the moment is at the main entrance, where there are approximately 10 members from each security force. In addition, growing numbers of tribal members are now showing up on site, which is increasing the tension.” Several security guards carried assault weapons. The situation is "very volatile," "tensions are high," and “there is no indication that the stand-off will conclude at any time soon,” Burdick wrote.

In his cease and desist order, Burdick later addresses his comments to “you and your contractors,” but does not name an individual. “It is my determination that your operations are illegal, and unlawfully located on real property held in trust by the United States of America. I have determined that there is a need to protect against a threat to the public health and safety, and protect a trust resource,” Burdick wrote. He orders the unnamed “you” to cease and desist the operation within 24 hours, and to restore the land to its original state.

On the same day that Burdick issued the cease and desist order – June 9 – Rosette, the firm representing Andrew Freeman filed a notice of appeal of Burdick’s cease and desist order with Amy Dutschke, the BIA’s regional director. Rosette attorney Alex Lozada wrote that the BIA’s recognition of the elected council members is “incorrect and improper,” and that the new council members were lawfully appointed.

Also on June 9, the BIA-recognized elected tribal council members announced in a release that they were closing the casino until the tribal council can “resolve the disputes within the Paskenta Tribe and remedy the illegal operation of the Casino by unauthorized management and attorneys.” But their attempt to physically shut down was 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, according to the Glen County Transcript and the Andrew Freeman faction remained in control.

Andrew Freeman issued a press release the next day – June 10 – in response to the elected council’s actions. “There is no tribal dispute or risk of violence at the Rolling Hills Casino,” he wrote. He then lashed out, accusing them of “perpetuating the false statements of violence and casino closure.” He said the new council members appointed at the April 12 meeting were supported overwhelmingly at a subsequent meeting a month later that was the largest in the tribe's history.

"There is no tribal dispute and the Rolling Hills Casino is fully operational despite a bogus press release issued on June 9th saying that it was 'shut down,’” Freeman reiterated. He said the only people who think there is a dispute are those who were disenrolled – and then he accused them of “allegedly [embezzling] millions from tribal accounts."