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Officials say Meskwaki takeover sets bad example

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Allowing a federally unrecognized tribal council to continue running the Sac and Fox Tribe of Mississippi in Iowa gaming operations will undermine the National Indian Gaming Commission's authority and jeopardize Indian gaming and government throughout the country, United States attorneys say.

On May 19, assistant U.S. attorneys asked a federal court judge to enforce the immediate closure of the tribe's gaming facilities, citing both appointed and elected councils in their request. If the judge grants the NIGC's request, federal marshals could be called to forcibly close the casino.

"The issue before this Court is whether an Indian tribe engaged in gaming pursuant to IGRA and under the oversight of the NIGC must follow closure orders issued by the NIGC Chairman," U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas L. Sansonetti wrote in a brief filed in federal court May 19. "The ultimate answer to this question is not in doubt."

Since March 26, a council appointed by hereditary chief Charles Old Bear has been running tribal programs - including the casino and hotel facility near Tama, Iowa. Council members and their supporters say the takeover was their last resort after the elected council - chaired by Alex Walker Jr. - refused to honor petitions to hold a recall vote and the BIA refused to step in and help enforce the tribal constitution.

But the BIA continues to recognize the Walker council. So, too the NIGC. On May 13, the commission ordered the appointed council - led by chairman Homer Bear Jr. - to close the gaming facility. The chairman's temporary closure order is supposed to be effective immediately and remain in effect until dissolved or made permanent by the entire commission. Instead, the appointed council filed a restraining order against the commission.

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"Defendants have brazenly failed to cease gaming as directed by the NIGC Chairman," Sansonetti wrote. Failure to issue an injunction will encourage 'dissidents' throughout Indian country and undermine tribal stability, he continued.

"Other tribes with internal leadership disputes are watching the outcome of this case. Allowing the unrecognized faction in this case to keep power would encourage others to challenge their own tribe's legitimate authority."

Federal District Court Judge Linda R. Reade has deferred judgment and is reviewing both cases. No further hearings were scheduled as of press time.

In a declaration submitted to the court, NIGC Chairman Philip N. Hogen agreed that allowing unrecognized factions to control gaming operations undermines the integrity of Indian gaming.

"Even if the dissident faction were to be the best casino managers and gaming regulators in the world - and we do not know whether they are or not - it lacks the legitimate authority that IGRA requires," Hogen wrote. "The gaming taking place at the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel is therefore not Indian gaming under IGRA."

Last fall, citing abuse of tribal funds and secretive council operations, a group of Sac and Fox, commonly known as Meskwaki tribal members signed petitions to recall the Tribe's elected council, headed by chairman Alex Walker Jr. The elected council initially accepted the petitions, but later rejected them and refused the recall election, saying they felt tribal members had been coerced into signing.