Property owner demands land sale

Contradictory directives put casino project in limbo

By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

China Lake Properties – part owner of some 26.5 acres of the Ridgecrest Business Park – sent a letter to the city of Ridgecrest demanding the sale of that property to Global Investment Enterprise Ridgecrest for the development of an Indian gaming casino.

CLP, the principal of which is former Ridgecrest resident Joann Clark (wife of former Mayor Dan Clark), would receive half of the money from any sale. The other half would be distributed among the Ridgecrest Redevelopment Agency successor entities, including the city, county, school district and other agencies.

The June 5 letter from Menke Law Firm, representing CLP, cites the agreement between the city of Ridgecrest Redevelopment Agency (now the city of Ridgecrest) and CLP which states “if all of the property has not been sold or leased by the end of the 10th year following the close of escrow, the agency agrees to sell all or any portion of the property to a third party or parties identified in writing to the agency by China Lake [Properties].”

The property in question was transferred to the city in 2000, more than 10 years ago, and CLP is exercising its apparent right to direct the city to sell to GIER for the originally agreed-on amount of $5.5 million.

The city entered into a land sale agreement with GIER in 2016, but funds were not deposited into the escrow account before the two-year deadline. Because the terms of the escrow agreement were not met, the city council voted to terminate the sale in December 2018 — leaving many to assume that the casino project was dead.

Casino interests blamed the federal government for dragging its feet when it came to taking the land into trust for the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, arguing that they would not have missed the escrow deadline if the land had been taken into trust in a timely manner. In May, the tribe announced that it was suing the Department of the Interior.

Earlier this month the tribe produced a DOI letter dated Sept. 27, 2018, and signed by Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, approving the trust acquisition through a memorandum of agreement between the department and the tribe.

Casino developer Nigel White said that the tribe didn’t receive the letter until June 3. When asked about the reason for the delay, he attributed it to “political shenanigans.”

The News Review reached out to the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs to request a copy of that letter and to ask about the apparent nine-month delay between being drafted and being sent out. Shortly after that request was made, White contacted the News Review saying that he was responding to the request for the letter.

In a discussion with Nedra Darling, BIA director of public affairs, the News Review asked if White was an authorized representative of the BIA. She said it was “very odd” for anyone other than a staff member to respond to a request from the Bureau. “We would not have contacted anyone else,” said Darling. “I definitely did not make that call. That’s very strange.”

When the News Review asked White why he said he was responding to our request to the bureau, he said he was acting on information from his lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

Darling said she couldn’t comment on the letter’s delay, but that a copy of the letter directly form the bureau, and a potential explanation for the delay, could only be solicited through a Freedom of Information Act request, which the News Review has now made.

To make matters more convoluted, a May 17 letter from the DOI says that any previous MOA between the Department and the Tribe is effectively no longer valid following the termination of the land sale.

“The cancellation of the purchase and sale agreement of the parcel does not, in and of itself, terminate the MOA between the Department and the Tribe, but it does appear to render performance of the MOA impossible,” said the letter, signed by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs John Tahsuda. “For this reason, the Department views the MOA as null and void.” [See also related letter to the editor, Page 4].

The city’s legal counsel Keith Lemieux reported on Wednesday that the city was discussing “four items of unidentified litigation” during closed session. No action has yet been taken and it’s unclear if any of those items pertain to the casino project.

See future editions of the News Review for more developments.

Story First Published: 2019-06-21