Gabrielino-Tongva dispute escalates

Two weeks ago, Los Angeles County sheriff deputies entered the offices of the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribe of the Los Angeles Basin. They left with numerous items, including a laptop computer belonging to retired state Senator Richard Polanco, CEO to the tribe. A rival tribal group also obtained warrants to have Polanco and several tribal leaders arrested if they don’t show up in West Los Angeles Superior Court on June 5.

The raid and warrants are just the latest battle in the legal war between two groups, each claiming to be the legitimate tribe and each hoping to build a casino in the Los Angeles area. In September, the group now affiliated with Polanco broke away from a group calling itself the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, affiliated with Santa Monica attorney Jonathan Stein.

Polanco’s side has a suit against Stein’s group, as well, in Los Angeles Superior Court. On Wednesday, Judge Conrad Aragon denied a motion by Stein to compel depositions from Polanco and the tribal council. On April 30, Aragon allowed the Gabreilino/Tongva Tribe to amend its complaint against Stein to include new allegations of fraud, forgery, legal malpractice and false impersonation. They also say they’ve filed a complaint with the state Bar against Stein.

The office raid came in the wake of an $812,500 preliminary writ Stein’s group won against Polanco’s in March. Stein said the warrants were issued after Polanco and the others ignored orders to appear in court in mid-April. He added that he has a June 8 date inspection date to look over the property.

“It is only the absence of any other alternative that has led us to this harsh measure,” Stein said of the raid and warrants. “Usually parties settle long before such harsh measures are taken.”

Polanco and the others say they have repeatedly been hit with failure-to-appear notices in these cases–after having never been properly served in the first place. Polanco said this was “Stein’s M.O.” A letter from Frank Cardenas, an attorney to the tribe allied with Polanco, complained in a letter to Stein’s
attorney, Geoffrey Long, that they were never served to appear for a “debtor’s examination” on May 10 relating to the $812,500.

Stein countered with notices he said were served by process server Leon Moore. He has transaction records showing tribal attorney Elizabeth Aronson, now legal counsel to the group allied with Polanco, removing over $350,000 from tribal accounts in eight transactions on November 8. Meanwhile, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, the Crane Group, has also sued the Polanco-allied group over nonpayment of lobbying fees as the tribe sought federal recognition.

A third group, the Gabrieleno/Tongva Band of Mission Indians of San Gabriel, predates both the Stein- and Polanco-affiliated organizations. They also have legal beefs with both groups, but currently lack the funds to pursue them, according to attorney Jack Schwartz. At least two other groups also claim to be the legitimate Gabrielino/Tongva tribe.

Meanwhile, Polanco’s group is suing Stein in district court in Los Angeles. They said they have filed a complaint with the state Bar association against Stein for keeping personal information of members who have left Stein’s tribe and joined the group affiliated with Polanco. Stein said the Bar has already rejected the complaint.

Polanco, Dunlap and others with the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribe say they are the legitimate tribe–and thus it’s their money. The writ won by Stein is only to cover fees allegedly owed to him for legal work for the tribe, they say. They broke with him when they realized he was just using them for large fees, while not getting them any closer to their goals of federal recognition and a casino, said Martin Acala, vice-chairman of the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribe.

“We realized that the only money he’s made in recent years came from suing his own clients,” said Acala. He went on to describe Stein as “totally vindictive,” saying that in the raid “he even wanted to take our furniture.”

According to L.A. County sheriff’s inventory records, dozens of items were taken from the offices on behalf of Stein’s St. Monica Development Corporation. These include a paper shredder, two printers, a card scanner, a wooden bookcase, several foam boards, “misc. framed Indian scenes” and a “carton of coloring books.”

Cardenas sent another letter to Long on May 7, claiming many of the items taken belonged to Polanco “not as Tribal Chief Executive Officer but as a private individual.

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