Business & Real Estate

Could this lawsuit hurt Elk Grove’s plans for an Indian casino?

Wilton Rancheria wants to build Sacramento County’s first tribal casino on the site of these unfinished structures of an ill-fated mall project in Elk Grove.
Wilton Rancheria wants to build Sacramento County’s first tribal casino on the site of these unfinished structures of an ill-fated mall project in Elk Grove.

A group of Elk Grove residents on Tuesday sued their City Council, alleging that some members privately colluded with the Wilton Rancheria tribe to push forward an Indian casino.

The lawsuit charges that city officials and Wilton Rancheria worked behind the scenes to help the federal government quickly take into trust 36 acres off Highway 99, a requirement for the tribe to build a proposed $400 million casino.

Attorney Brigit Barnes said she filed the lawsuit on behalf of residents to obtain public records that the city has refused to provide. Based on preliminary documents, including screenshots of text messages, Barnes believes city leaders may have privately orchestrated their actions to help the tribe secure trust status.

Elk Grove spokeswoman Kristyn Nelson responded in a statement that “the city has complied with the Brown Act and the Public Records Act in all of its proceedings related to the casino project.”

Barnes did not disclose who is financing legal and communications support for the lawsuit. She said she was not being paid by the card room interests that gathered 14,000 referendum signatures last year in an effort to block the casino project.

But Wilton Rancheria spokesman Bob Magnuson portrayed the lawsuit, in a statement, as “a desperate media stunt by an out-of-town front group for a local card room that’s trying to stifle competition.”

Magnuson pointed to communications strategist Roger Salazar being listed as the press contact on the lawsuit press release. Salazar is a spokesman for Knighted Ventures LLC, an Emeryville company that provides financial services to card rooms and funded the referendum drive.

Salazar said Knighted Ventures is not behind the lawsuit initiated by Barnes.

The Elk Grove City Council passed an ordinance last year that allowed 36 acres along Highway 99 to be used for purposes other than a mall. That enabled Howard Hughes Corp. to sell the land to Wilton Rancheria for a casino.

Following a successful referendum by casino foes last year, the City Council on Jan. 25 had to either call a special election to let voters decide or reverse the ordinance on its own.

Before the meeting, Wilton tribal chairman Raymond Hitchcock texted an unnamed city official, “I feel like today is the finish line or we will be screwed,” based on public records obtained by Barnes.

The council postponed the agenda item.

The following morning, the unnamed city official wrote to Hitchcock, “Don’t think we can delay anymore. Get it done,” according to a screenshot of text messages obtained by Barnes. The official appeared to urge Hitchcock to get the federal government to accept the 36 acres into trust, a move that would secure the land for Wilton Rancheria regardless of subsequent city actions.

The tribal leader replied, “I don’t want u (to) have to. I am on it as we speak! Regardless of what happens in the next two weeks. Kill it. This extra time is a godsend. Great work last night.”

The council eventually voted Feb. 8 to reverse its decision on the developer’s agreement, with Mayor Steve Ly saying he “heard loud and clear” the public’s opposition to the council’s earlier action that paved the way for Wilton Rancheria.

Barnes alleged Tuesday that the timing was intentional because the Feb. 8 action would not become final until Feb. 22, by which time the land deed had been accepted into trust.

“It’s a complete sham,” Barnes said of the City Council’s actions. “This was all planned. I think they were just desperate.”

Ly and Vice Mayor Steven Detrick did not return requests for comment Tuesday.

Barnes suggested that documents the city is withholding may provide further evidence of Brown Act violations, which she believes could prompt federal officials to take a fresh look at the application. The federal government initially said it accepted the land into trust in February, but it still has not published the action in the federal register, which is required to make it official.

“We want them to kick it back to Elk Grove and let the people have something to say about this,” Barnes said.

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang