Factions wage battle for tribal status

The Gabrielino/Tongva Tribe wants to build a casino in Los Angeles. So does the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe. Both the “slash” and “hyphen” groups claim to be the legitimate tribal government of one of the oldest Indian bands in Southern California, and both are fighting each other in possibly one of the most complex legal disputes of the tribal-gaming era.

“What’s important is the success of the tribe,” said Sam Dunlap, tribal secretary of the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribal Council. “When you have colorful personalities involved, it clouds the issues.”

On the “slash” side is Dunlap, 46, an experienced archeological technician, ex-Marine and ex-bounty hunter who converted to Islam three years ago. He said he served almost three years in prison for blowing up the Communist Party headquarters in Los Angeles in 1980. He and the other originally elected representatives are the only legitimate tribal leaders, Dunlap said, as shown in an October election certified by Talley and Company, the tribe’s longtime accountants.

On the “hyphen” side is Jonathan Stein, 50, the Jewish attorney who spent six years trying to get a casino for the tribe. He is the group’s CEO, working with a new set of tribal officers. The group lists his Santa Monica law offices as their headquarters.

The two groups split after a September 9 confrontation between Dunlap and Stein. In a February 3 letter to Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti protesting a decision to allow Dunlap’s group to use City Council chambers for a tribal membership meeting, Stein detailed several charges against Dunlap. Stein wrote that Dunlap had made anti-Semitic comments and admitted visits to “Hezbollah-affiliated individuals.” He went on to say Dunlap had tried to misappropriate $18,000 and that he had “Patriot Act concerns” over Dunlap’s behavior. The blow-up happened shortly before Stein was scheduled to leave on a Beverly Hills Bar Association trip to Israel.

Dunlap denied these charges. He frequently has expressed admiration for the Jewish people, Dunlap said. Because of his status as a Muslim military veteran, he added, he already has withstood government scrutiny and was not found to have done anything wrong. He left the Marines in 1981 when he was convicted of the bombing. His interest in the Middle East began two years later, when over 200 members of his regiment were killed in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing.

“Jonathan is trying to create an issue for his own benefit,” Dunlap said. “It’s unfortunate. My relationship with God is a private matter.”

The two groups have many other matters to deal with, as well. Both Stein and Dunlap’s groups are actively courting people with Gabrielino roots. Each claims the majority of tribal members. Dunlap and Martin Alcala, tribal vice chairman of the slash group, said that Stein’s tribal leadership essentially are puppets. Three other groups also claim the mantle as the true Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, but all five lack the federal recognition and suitable tribal land considered prerequisites for a casino in California.

The slash group now has allied with Richard Polanco, the lobbyist and former state senator considered one of the more important figures in tribal gaming in California. They have sued Stein for defamation and breach of contract. They’ve also filed four FPPC complaints against him. The most recent, dated March 7, alleges that he registered as their lobbyist without permission.

Stein, meanwhile, has sued Dunlap’s group, as well as Polanco and Libra Securities, the investment bank that arranged $21 million in investment funds for the casino effort. On March 8, Stein’s side won a writ of attachment against Dunlap’s group in state Superior Court in Los Angeles for $812,500, assets that are to be frozen pending the final outcome of legal proceedings. Alcala said the money represents Stein’s unpaid legal fees and salary–money he said went unpaid for good reason. Stein’s suit claims that Dunlap and Alcala’s group abscondedwith the $900,000 in the tribal bank account.

“In my opinion, this is nothing more than a money grab,” Stein said. “In order to avoid more serious charges, they’re disguising it as a power grab.”

How did things get to this point?

“There was a time when it was just Jonathan and me sitting in a room together seven years ago wondering what we were going to do next,” Dunlap said.

Stein was a successful trial attorney who go involved with Proposition 5, a 1998 effort to legalize tribal gaming. Stein said he became intrigued with the idea of downtrodden tribes who were becoming big financial and political players.

Few tribes were more downtrodden than the Gabrielino-Tongva group, historically known as the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians. They endured harsh labor in Junipero Serra’s Spanish Mission system. According to a tribal history posted on Stein’s group’s Web site, the tribe signed a treaty in the early 1850s and was promised 50,000 acres near the Tejon Pass in eastern Los Angeles County.

But it became one of the “18 lost treaties,” locked in a desk drawer in Washington, D.C., until 1905. Tribal members later were bought off for tiny sums. The federal government’s actions, the group argues, constitute “de facto recognition” of the tribe.

But that’s not good enough, said Cheryl Schmit, co-director of Stand Up for California, a coalition of local groups that often fights tribal-casino efforts. The “state recognition” provided by SJR 47, the 2002 resolution from Senator Nell Soto to give recognition to the tribe, also essentially is meaningless, Schmit said.

“The recognition process is a federal process,” Schmit said. “You’re not just recognizing a people, they’re establishing a new government.”

It will be difficult for the group to get federal recognition, Schmit said, because they lack some of the characteristics the government is looking for. The group was a Mission labor force, she said, possibly drawn from several tribes and lacking a previously existing government. She said that she filed a Freedom of Information Act request last year with the Department of the Interior that she said confirmed none of the tribal factions had taken any action seeking federal recognition since 2002.

However, Stein secured the first payment of $2.1 million in May–much of it invested by John Hancock as arranged by Libra–and began following many of the processes used successfully by other tribes. He hired Polanco last February. Other money went to the Analysis Group for a 46-page study on the tribe’s proposed 1,000 slot machine casino in Los Angeles. The Analysis Group’s Alan Meister estimated the casino would generate more than $40 million a year in state and local taxes, a key selling point for the proposal.

Between May 31 and the September 9 split, the tribe distributed $104,600 in campaign contributions, mainly to Los Angeles area Democrats in the Legislature. One of the first two donations was for $1,000 to the unsuccessful Senate campaign of then Assemblyman Tom Umberg. In 2005, Umberg proposed AB 1561, a gaming compact for the Gabrielinos. The bill died in committee this past November.

However, Alcala said the relationship with Stein deteriorated over time as he tried to use his “enormous vocabulary” to take advantage of the less sophisticated council members.

“If Jonathan’s ego exploded, all of L.A. would go with it,” Alcala said.

Things came to a head, Dunlap and Alcala said, when Stein demanded signed blank checks and tried to fire triba
l attorney Liz Aronson when she refused to provide them, something he had no authority to do. Dunlap confronted Stein and received an ambiguously worded resignation letter. Stein then kicked him out of his offices, which were also the official tribal headquarters. They say Stein refused to turn over the tribal-membership list and other important documents.

Stein tells a different story, one involving an August 11 e-mail from Dunlap concerning an upcoming trip to Damascus to do “humanitarian work.” His said he questions whether Dunlap’s trip could cause problems for the tribe, especially if he used tribal funds. Such questions fueled ongoing disputes over money that ended with Dunlap and his group changing the names on the bank accounts. They also failed to pay several creditors, including the Field Poll, leaving Stein to pick up the pieces with the reconstituted group.

Even when the real tribe is determined, they still will find themselves engaged in a very difficult process.

“The road to recognition is very long,” said David Quintana, political director of the California Tribal Business Alliance, which is not affiliated with any Gabrielino faction. “From what I’ve seen of the recognition process and dealing with the internal factions, these guys are a lifetime away.”

Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at

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