Misrepresentations, NCAI resolution cloud Juaneno application

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WASHINGTON - On the eve of a BIA Office of Federal Acknowledgment decision on the Juaneno bid for federal recognition, Anthony Rivera has associated himself with misrepresentations that seek to bolster his credibility as the band's chairman while giving new interest to the allegations of a faction that disputes his leadership.

The misrepresentations, printed over Rivera's signature in the September edition of Juaneno Tribal News, concern statements attributed to Indian Country Today on the basis of three separate interviews in as many months with four band members, including Rivera, and a lobbyist hired by the Rivera administration, Paul Moorehead of Drinker Biddle and Reath in Washington. The attributions are false, and one appears to be a particularly brazen fabrication - the concept that anyone (in this instance, alleges the newsletter, Rivera rival David Belardes) could ''own'' or pay to own an application for federal recognition.

Rivera agreed the newsletter's attributions are mistaken. He red-flagged them in the editorial process, but by an oversight they made it into print anyway, he said. Moorehead said he had not seen the newsletter as of late Friday, Sept. 21. Rivera offered to print corrections in the next edition of the newsletter.

But with an OFA decision on the Juaneno due on or before Sept. 26, according to OFA director Lee Fleming, that won't be soon enough for Billy Horton of Hard Count Inc. or for Belardes, a former chairman of the band who is now represented by Horton.

Horton has insisted for months now that Rivera owes the many organizational endorsements of his chairmanship to a pattern of misrepresentation that relies on first achieving visibility, either through his presence or alleged monetary and in-kind donations, and then requesting an endorsement of his leadership without acknowledging the factions that challenge it. He offered the newsletter accounts as proof of a pattern of misrepresentation on Rivera's part.

Horton has not substantiated his allegations of a pattern of misrepresentation and influence-peddling behind Rivera's endorsements, and the minutes and eyewitness accounts behind a National Congress of American Indians resolution of support for the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation actually refute them in the case of NCAI. A nationally prominent tribal leader in southern California, where the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association has endorsed Rivera and the Juaneno, declined to comment for the time being because the Juaneno recognition bid is at a delicate stage.

Rivera does not acknowledge factions within the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation that has elected him chairman. All of the supposed ''factions'' are in fact individuals, he contends, adding that only the band he leads constitutes a government. The Interior Department, of which the BIA and OFA are agencies, has identified Rivera ''and the governing body he represents'' as a spokesman for the band in the active consideration phase of its petition for federal recognition. Interior treats Belardes as an interested party, but its phrasing goes further: ''The governing body represented by Mr. David Belardes will be treated as an 'interested party.'''

Though the general council under Rivera voted to eject Belardes from that governing body, Interior describes him years afterward as still representing a governing body.

Rivera presented a support resolution for the band under his leadership at the 2005 NCAI annual conference in Tulsa, Okla. NCAI's policy on federal recognition is that all tribes deserve a fair process, according to NCAI general counsel John Dossett. Based on the precedent of a previous resolution in favor of federal recognition for another tribe, Rivera successfully argued that his resolution should be considered. But it was debated in committee, and in subcommittee, and the general assembly voted on it. In the process, the resolution was stripped of Rivera's name and of territorial designations. The support resolution that passed spelled ''Acjachemen'' with two e's instead of two lower-case A's, a significant difference in some quarters. But Belardes acknowledges that the spelling and pronunciation of the word occur in many variants, and Rivera said that in exasperation, after a long day of salvaging any resolution at all, ''They could have spelled it in Greek for all I cared.''

The ambiguities of NCAI's policy and the processing of the Juaneno resolution in its original and amended versions led Dossett to characterize the resolution as ''a mistake.'' Moorehead said he's not going to argue with NCAI's general counsel, but added that his understanding of NCAI resolutions is that once adopted by the general assembly, they can only be revoked by the general assembly. In Denver in November, Dossett said, NCAI will consider clarifying its policy on support resolutions for tribes that are in the process of seeking federal recognition. NCAI will also consider revoking all previous support resolutions for non-federally recognized tribes, he said.

Regarding Horton's allegations of a pattern of misrepresentation on Rivera's part, eyewitness accounts and the NCAI minutes demonstrate that consideration of the Juaneno resolution took place in the full light of day and due process, with full opportunity for all sides of the issue to make their case.

All sides agree that with Juaneno ancestral territory extending into the phenomenally lucrative Los Angeles gaming market, gaming prospects and their representatives have had a bearing on the factionalism acknowledged by Interior.

Belardes admits that through ''a friend of a friend,'' he first explored gaming as an option for the band, while he was chairman in the early 1990s. ''We got caught up in the gaming issues. It was new to us. ... I don't think anybody understood our sovereignty or anything. They were looking at the gaming money, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It was like a runaway train. I couldn't stop it. ... Seeing the fight, seeing the people get involved in the greed, was really disheartening. ... It was craziness, it was unbelievable.

''People couldn't understand that Juaneno sovereignty pre-dated the United States.''

He sought legal advice that soon discredited a too-good-to-be-true contract that had been offered the band. Then-vice chair Jean Frietze and other council members signed the contract, according to Rivera and to documents provided by Horton, in part precipitating an election dispute between Frietze and Belardes. Belardes did not sign the contract and did not run for chairman again. Frietze won the election, which Belardes considers illegitimate and Rivera describes as certified. Belardes asserted himself as the Juaneno chief, arguing that his status did not change. He retained a following according to Juaneno tradition, he said. Rivera succeeded Frietz. He said the general council revoked the contract shortly afterward, and described it all as ''ancient history.'' Gaming remains an option for the tribe but not a goal, Rivera said, approving the words of current vice chair Fran Yorba. Rivera reiterated that neither he nor his administration have signed contracts with gaming interests.

Belardes also considers gaming an option. But because of local opposition and the Juaneno disputes, he considers a tribal casino a distant prospect. ''We're so far away from that. ... I think we're going to have to do some other [business] venues if we get recognized, if we get that far.''

Whatever the preliminary OFA decision due by Sept. 26, Belardes and other observers (lobbyists who spoke on condition of anonymity because of other client interests) expressed doubt the office has gotten clear on Juaneno leadership. ''It's all of us or none of us,'' he said. ''You can't be arguing ... We get to tearing each other apart before we get through the government's process and they'll tear us apart for sure.''