Pending recognition decision for Juaneno stirs waters in Washington lobbying pool

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Chairman Anthony Rivera on nationhood and individuals

Part two

WASHINGTON - The Juaneno Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation ejected former Chairman David Belardes from the band in September 1997, by a vote of the general council of 26 in favor, zero opposed and two abstaining.

Anthony Rivera, current chairman of the band, said the general council ejected Belardes for multiple reasons, including his assertion of himself as chairman following an election loss. ''Mr. Belardes continued not to accept the results of that certified election,'' Rivera said. He also continued to conduct re-interment ceremonies for Native remains unearthed in Southern California, usually at construction sites, a practice that was controversial within the band in the 1990s. ''It still is,'' said Fran Yorba, vice-chairman of the band.

The Juaneno are under final consideration by the BIA for federal recognition as a tribe. Supporting the Acjachemen application under Rivera's leadership are the National Congress of American Indians, the 19 federally recognized tribes of the Southern California Tribal Chairmens' Association, Rancho Mission Viejo, Orange County, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and the cities of San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, Calif. In a 1993 resolution, the California state Legislature recognized the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians Acjachema Nation, as the aboriginal tribe of Orange County and identified its aboriginal lands to include parts of Los Angeles County. The proximity of aboriginal lands to Los Angeles has stirred concern in the region that the Juaneno might open a casino.

Belardes has the backing of Billy Horton, president of Hard Count Inc. in Austin, Texas. Through his staff at Hard Count and connections he declined to identify, Horton has enlisted Barbour Griffith and Rogers as a lobbyist for Belardes and his associates as they seek federal recognition as the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians. Horton says his client has been ''kicked in the teeth'' by paid puppets of the gaming industry. He goes on to characterize Rivera in terms that can't be printed without documented proofs that haven't materialized.

Documents demonstrate that Horton and Belardes have signed a contract that would pay Horton 6 percent of proceeds from a casino and related facilities for five years after casino revenues reach $10,000,000 in gross revenues annually. Under terms of the contract, the money would be earned on the day Belardes and company are recognized by the federal government as a tribe. Horton said BGR is not a party to any similar contract.

Of the contract Rivera said, ''It just demonstrates to me a desperate individual making a desperate deal, and someone buying it.'' He said that neither he nor any member of his administration has signed a contract with gaming interests that would be paid from future casino proceeds. No one within the tribe stands to profit on pending deals, and casino developers have not financed the band's recognition efforts, he said. The Juaneno have proceeded through ''blood, sweat and tears,'' perseverance, strategy, commitment and the generosity of some members, he said. Gaming issues have been dealt with by the general council as an internal tribal matter, Rivera said, adding that casino developers have not had a place at the table. Gaming simply isn't a purpose of the 1982 application for federal recognition, he said. The purpose of the application is carried forward by the people of the tribe, not by an individual or a group of individuals, he said, agreeing that sovereignty isn't vested in individuals but in tribes, bands and nations. ''Every tribe has its dissenters that can make claims.''

The Juaneno Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation takes its stand on the strength of its application for federal recognition, Rivera said. But he and the band are concerned that BGR, a well-connected Republican-leaning firm with a reputation for hard-nosed effectiveness, has weighed in against its recognition bid in the late stages of a 25-year process. Given BGR's alleged role in the unprecedented overturn of federal recognition for the Schagticoke Tribal Nation, its extensive connections in Republican circles and the wealth of its known clients, the band worries that BGR is exerting behind-the-scenes influence against the merits of its application.

The band has been a patient petitioner, in full compliance with the regulations, Rivera said. ''If they can't deny the petition, what's the next best thing? To delay it.''

The BIA has interpreted the ruling regulation to provide not a single 180-day final decision period, but successive 180-day periods. It hasn't justified the delays, Rivera said. ''This is something that is of great concern to us.''

Paul Moorehead, a lobbyist for the Juaneno with the Washington firm of Drinker Biddle and Reath, said of the BIA, ''They're creating dispute by putting people in the queue and using them to say there's a quote unquote leadership dispute.'' (Moorehead, former lead counsel and chief of staff on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said he did no work for or with the Juaneno while he was on the committee staff.)

Carl Artman, head of the BIA, was taking time off after Labor Day and couldn't be reached, spokesman Nedra Darling said.