Timbisha Shoshone tribe sues DOI

By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

The Timbisha Shoshone tribe – which attempted to purchase Ridgecrest property in 2016 with hopes to develop a gaming casino and entertainment complex – is now filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior, namely Secretary David Bernhardt and Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason.

The tribe is suing the department for its “failure to comply with its mandatory duty to accept title to certain land and hold it in trust for the tribe’s benefit,” says the injunction, filed May 16 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Escrow on the proposed land sale to the tribe expired in 2018, after which the sitting council voted to terminate the agreement. But the tribe attributes delays on Interior’s end to “political considerations that are not grounded in statute or department regulation.”

The Timbisha Shoshone tribe received five federal parcels of land into trust in 2000 as a result of the Homeland Act, but “for various reasons, these parcels were deemed not suitable for the type of revenue-generating economic development necessary to reduce the tribe’s dependence on the United States,” says the document.

As a result, the tribe sought out an alternative parcel in Ridgecrest “mutually agreed upon by the secretary and the tribe” to take into trust. According to the tribe, Interior signed a memorandum of agreement with the tribe regarding the Ridgecrest parcel. But “more than two years after the secretary committed to acquire the Ridgecrest parcel, the secretary has inexplicably failed to comply with his mandatory duty to accept this parcel into trust for the tribe.”

“This is not the first time the Department of Interior has been accused of allowing improper political communications to influence its decisions regarding Native American Tribes,” says the injunction. “[The] defendants’ delay is significantly prejudicing and harming the Tribal Plaintiff.”

The MOA was signed Jan. 19, 2017, one day shy of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, by then Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Larry Roberts. But there’s some question about whether the approval was within Roberts’ purview.

According to a Feb. 19 U.S. District Court – Central District of California decision regarding the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians, Roberts wasn’t authorized to issue a land-into-trust decision.

The legal document asserts that Roberts’ role as acting assistant secretary expired on July 29, 2016, after which he reverted to his position as principal deputy, lacking the authority to sign the agreement.

While the land sale has expired, there is still a binding municipal services agreement between the city and the tribe.

This MSA contains some assurances that tribal activities would adhere to city laws and ordinances and that the tribe would provide payment for municipal services.

The MSA also states that the city will provide correspondence to the Interior Department in support of the tribe’s application to take lands into trust.

According to court documents, then Tribal Chair George Gholson sent letters to Associate Deputy Secretary Cason and U.S. Representative Kevin McCarthy in an attempt to begin the fee-to-trust process while the land in question was in escrow. But neither office responded, nor did Cason address the lack of response when the tribe did meet with I’m in December.

“In these letters the Tribe communicated that it had the opportunity to request an extension of the option period during the City Council’s lame duck period (before the new City Council was seated) and stated bluntly its understanding that the only reason the fee to trust had not been approved was the lack of response from Congressman McCarthy’s office,” said the injunction. This is the only portion of the document where the Ridgecrest City Council is mentioned.

Story First Published: 2019-05-24