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InFocus: More woes for the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe

One of California’s longest-suffering Indian bands is undergoing yet another leadership dispute. The Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe of the Los Angeles Basin — which has already lived through a loss of federal recognition and a casino effort that has been stalled for years, as well as competing bands and multiple lawsuits — has now seen a split among its tribal council.

At least two members of the nine-member council have been in open revolt against the tribe’s CEO, former state Sen. Richard Polanco, since last year. Both have been suspended from the council since May. According to tribal councilman Richard Alcala, Polanco has been accuring a salary of $50,000 a month while doing little for the tribe, though he has yet to be paid. Alcala also contends that Polanco has interfered with the operation of the tribal council and has maneuvered to keep a “puppet” leader as the tribe’s chairman.

Alcala’s sentiments were echoed by another councilmember, John Aguirre, who resigned his post and his membership in the tribe on June 28.

Aguirre said that he has had major issues with the employment agreement that the tribe signed with Polanco. This letter of intent would give Polanco 6 percent of casino profits, he said, while the tribe itself would be last-in-line among all investors with little guarantee of their 43 percent cut. He also charged that Polanco was essentially negotiating with himself, in a clear conflict of interest.
“While I’m not sure it’s illegal, it’s pretty unethical,” Aguirre said. Of the percentage of casino profits, he added, “He has every right to try to negotiate that. If we’re stupid enough to give it to him, more power to him.”  

Polanco declined to comment on the record, referring calls to tribal chairwoman Virginia Carmelo, who dismissed the allegations.
“The conflict has basically arisen from people who are in a minority vote not being satisfied with being the minority vote,” Carmelo said.

She said that Polanco’s employment agreement was approved by the tribes’ longtime attorney, Liz Aronson, who resigned at the end of May because“she did not wish to deal with the conflict that was ongoing among the council,” Carmelo said. His percentage of casino profits, she said, is a mere 0.5 percent. She also said that the tribe was in the process of renegotiating Polanco’s contract.
“It’s going to be something more in conformity to our economic times,” she said.

In many ways, the Gabrielino-Tongvas typify many of the problems that have been facing California Indian tribes since long before the casino gaming era began almost a decade ago. Theirs was one of 18 treaties lost by the federal government in 1905, leading to them losing their federal recognition half a century ago—something the tribe has been trying to get back ever since.

There were already up to four different factions claiming to be the tribe when the largest group began working with a Santa Monica-based attorney named Jonathan Stein in 2001. The goal was to regain federal recognition, then parlay casino compact with the federal government.

After numerous disputes over strategy and control of investment assets, the tribe split in two in late 2006, when Polanco came in. A separate group, the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe continues to work with Stein. Both claim to have the allegiance of the majority of the tribe’s 1,500-plus members.

“He is our CEO and senior investor, for sure,” said Bernie Acuna, a tribal councilman with that group. “We’re stronger than ever and we’re doing great. We have about 85 percent of the membership.”

Acuna added of the rival group, “I know they’re splitting up and having problems, which doesn’t’ surprise me.”

A trio of lawsuits between the two groups were consolidated into one, with the Carmelo/Polanco group winning a $560,000 judgment last fall. The case is now on appeal.

Richard Alcala is the brother of Martin Alcala, a tribal councilman who was one of Stein’s chief critics prior to his death in February 2008. He said that in his view, Polanco is “Stein in a different suit.”

“He’s trying to seize control of this nation,” Alcala said. “He basically doesn’t have time for us, and whenever he does have time for us it’s basically to screw us over.”

Alcala provided a copy of Polanco’s contract, which bars him from lobbying and calls on Polanco to “devote no less than the majority of his time, attention and energies to the business of the Nation.” Polanco is a registered lobbyist currently listing only one client: Tres Es, Inc., a firm run by his daughter, Olivia Polanco. Tres Es, in turn, has three lobbying clients, including Ed Voice and the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Aguirre and Alcala also contend that other members of the tribal council have yet to prove that they are even Gabrielinos. Each provided documents from the Department of the Interior showing their percentage of Gabrielino blood. Alcala is one-half Gabrielino, while Aguirre is 1/16th,which is enough to qualify under current rules.

“I believe some of the council members who are leading are not Gabrielino Indians, and they are signing contracts for people who are,” Aguirre said.

Carmelo said that she and other council-members who allied with her have similar proof “on file,” but this information is “not public.”
These and other disputes came to a head last August, when both Aguirre and Alcala say they began more openly questioning Carmelo and Polanco. They said they were able to get enough votes to unseat Carmelo, but she was reinstated when Polanco intervened. Both men say they were purposefully excluded from a council meeting that month where she was reinstated, which they say was called with 70 minutes notice in Upland, hours away from their homes in Orange County and San Diego, respectively.  

Carmelo disputes this as well, saying she was never unseated. She also said the pair were given the required 48 hour notice for the meeting in question.

“A minority of the tribal council, which ended up being two members, tried to unsuccessfully unseat me from being the chair five times,” she said.

Then there is the matter of a mysterious investor both sides refer to only as “Mr. Red.” Aguirre and Alcala said that Mr. Red met with six council members last September, with Carmelo not present. He offered about $15 million, hoping to take over full funding of the recognition and casino projects. Polanco, seeing him as a threat, got the board to turn him down.

Carmelo again contested these claims, saying only “We did some initial talks. Nothing ever came of it.”

Both sides claim the allegiance of two other councilmembers, Ron Castillo and Rick Mackin. Neither man could be reached for comment by press time; emails to their tribal council addresses bounced, while neither returned calls.

However, Alcala did provide a May 27 email from Mackin stating he did not recognize “the suspension of any council members.”

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