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FBI investigates Cahuilla charges, strife reigns

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ANZA, Calif. - The FBI is investigating allegations of embezzlement and theft at the Cahuilla Creek Casino on the Cahuilla Indian reservation. The investigation comes on the heels of internal strife that produced two tribal councils, each claiming sole legitimacy.

The FBI's Palm Springs office received documents from the tribal gaming commission which requested that they be reviewed by the National Indian Gaming Association which was informed in February of possible allegations. Association sources say an FBI investigation may take months to sort out all the allegations.

One of the tribal councils, led by Antonio Heredia, claims the other council had a hand in the corruption and is only seeking tribal authority to cover its tracks. The Heredia faction says no one on the rival council, led by Leann Salgado, is directly implicated in the casino corruption, but claims employees hired by the tribe, including the casino manager and tribal attorney, were directly involved.

They claim attorney Glen Charos, hired by the tribe under the rival Salgado council, wrote in-house checks that bounced, to fill ATM machines owned by Charos himself.

"I'm offended, but not surprised by the allegations coming out of the Heredia camp," says Charos, who emphatically denies the charges.

He claims three attempts have been made to remove the Heredia council from office, including three separate elections.

The charges resulted in some raucous tribal meetings during which the Riverside County Sheriff's Department was called in to maintain the peace. The dispute apparently resulted when members of the Salgado council attempted to physically remove the Heredia council members.

Sources on the Heredia council claim a letter was sent to the sheriff's department by the BIA requesting that they not respond to calls on the Cahuilla Reservation.

"There was a letter, but it did not request that we not respond to calls at Cahuilla," says Sgt. Gil Cervantes of the Riverside sheriff's office.

The story gets more complicated. When first contacted by Indian Country Today March 20, Southern California BIA director Virgil Townsend said the bureau was not choosing a side to recognize. He said this was one of the few instances where the bureau would not make a decision because his agency felt that both sides argued their case well and had remanded the issue to the tribe.

Later that day, Townsend sent a letter to the Salgado council, giving formal bureau recognition to that government. Townsend says the change of heart resulted from elections the previous weekend in which the Salgado camp apparently won.

Asked whether the elections were fair, Townsend replied that matter was not for the bureau to decide, it was an internal tribal matter.

Angela Bogner, the tribal treasurer for the Heredia group, has no such reservations. She claims only 35 of the tribe's 140 members actually voted in the March 17-18 elections. She asks why is the BIA recognizing a council when only a quarter of the tribe voted.

Bogner speculates the reason has to do with the Candelaria Environmental Co., which houses contaminated soil from former gasoline stations. The Heredia group claims it is an illegal dump and instituted a lawsuit that also names the BIA. Candelaria, owned by members of the Salgado group, actually sits on private land, but members of the Heredia group say the operation affects tribally owned property.

"If the Salgado group takes over the council, then the BIA won't have to worry about the lawsuit and will be free to license them. This is my own opinion of course, but I can't see any other reason," Bogner said.

Calls to Townsend regarding the matter were not returned.

Charos, however, says that it is typical of Cahuilla elections to have less than a majority of the tribe voting. The matter is complicated because the tribe is known as a "customs and traditions" tribe, which means they have no formal or written governing document and must rely on the far more vague and interpretive processes believed to be Cahuilla tradition for tribal governance.

What is known is that both parties asked the BIA to recognize one faction or the other. The Heredia camp claims the Salgado group asked the BIA for a list of criteria for holding elections, and it was most likely based on this criteria that it was recognized, not Cahuilla tradition. The two groups disagree over what that tradition is.

The Heredia group, unhappy with the BIA, decision, says it will appeal. Calls to Leann Salgado were not returned.