A former tribal chairwoman and three other members filed legal challenges Thursday charging that they were illegally banished from United Auburn Indian Community and denied a share of millions of dollars from the lucrative Thunder Valley tribal casino in Lincoln.
In an unusual legal action unearthing bitter divisions in one of California’s wealthiest casino tribes, plantiffs headed by former chairwoman Jessica Tavares charged that the United Auburn tribe imposed “unlawful restraints on their liberty” by cutting off their income and banning them from tribal property.
In court papers filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, attorneys for Tavares claimed she was personally denied up to $2 million of her share of casino revenues as political retaliation for criticizing the tribal council over some $25 million in legal fees paid to the firm of tribal attorney Howard Dickstein.
Tavares’ legal action, filed as a writ of habeas corpus, said the tribal council imposed a four-year ban on payments to Tavares, beginning in November 2011, a denial of $40,000 a month in benefits, plus bonuses based on casino profits. It claimed the tribal action dealt a “severe and devastating penalty” that resulted in Tavares losing her house through foreclosure.
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Tavares and the other plaintiffs – Dolly Suehead, Barbara Suehead and Donna Caesar – were part of an unsuccessful recall effort against five tribal council members in 2011 that focused on a contract, later revised, that had paid a percentage of casino revenues to Dickstein. The tribal attorney, who couldn’t be reached Thursday, said in an inteview with The Bee in early 2012 that the financial arrangement was proper and that his relationship with United Auburn resulted in “a phenomenal net benefit to the tribe.”
Doug Elmets, a spokesman for the United Auburn Indian Community, said Thursday that the tribe would have no comment on the legal action.
The legal action was filed against the five members of the United Auburn tribal council, including Gene Whitehouse, Calvin Moman, Brenda Adams, John Williams and Danny Rey. Rey is Tavares’ son. Williams is her nephew.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Andrew Stroud, said the legal action required that Rey and Williams be named as defendants “in their current capacity as council members.” However, he said neither had been on the tribal council that banished Tavares and the others, adding: “This lawsuit is not intended toward them. We are not accusing them.”
I. Nelson Rose, a Whittier Law School professor specializing in gambling law, described the habeas corpus writ as an uncommon legal effort to get around Indian nation sovereignty laws that protect tribes against lawsuits. But he said the action underscored the often searing feuds that erupt within tribes fighting over sudden gambling wealth.
“When they were all living in absolute poverty, they might have had these intratribal feuds, often family feuds, and we never heard of them,” Rose said. “Either the enormity of the money is creating these divisions or it is bringing them to our attention because there is money to fight over instead of just personal grudges.”