Casino dispute fuels Meskwaki Tribe feud
Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Voters of the Meskwaki Tribe of Iowa will go to the polls in October to participate in a recall election many have sought for nearly a year.

The federally recognized tribal council yesterday set the October 21 date in response to a deadline imposed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The council was given a choice: schedule the recall or the BIA would recognize the results of a special election.

The BIA issued the ultimatum in a letter last Monday. Larry Morrin, the Midwest regional director, said the recognized tribal council's relationship with the Department of Interior was threatened by the "continued failure to deal with the efforts of the tribal membership to express their will."

Alex Walker Jr. heads the recognized council, which was duly elected but has been called into question by members who say the group has unlawfully interfered with the tribe's successful gaming operation. The casino, which generates $3 million a week, has been shut down since late May as a result of the dispute.

There is no guarantee the recall will finally settle the matter, which has generated significant media, political and legal interest. But for those who have sought the ouster of Walker's faction, it is vindication of their long-held stance.

The source of the feud is a series of actions involving the casino. In early July 2002, Walker and his brother, who serves as treasurer, approved a $37,500 bonus payment to the casino's manager.

The Meskwaki Gaming Commission, which is responsible for regulating the tribe's gaming activities and ensuring they comply with tribal, federal and other applicable laws, began an investigation into the payment. Walker's council responded by approving the bonus, as required by tribal law, but not until August 28, 2002. Two days later, the council fired three of the four gaming commissioners.

A few days later, on September 2, 2002, gaming commissioners allege their offices were broken into by a member of Walker's council who was also working as head of security at the casino, the casino manager and another casino employee. According to the gaming commissioners, the interlopers took computer records.

But on September 5, 2002, the fired commissioners won their positions back because the termination by Walker's council was deemed illegal. The gaming commission first suspended, then fired, the three involved in the alleged break-in.

Word of the activities prompted recall elections among the tribal membership in October. Walker's council refused to accept them, citing alleged irregularities. Some signatures were invalid, the council said at the time.

The battle heated up again in March of this year, when the Walker council replaced the head of the gaming commission who sought to replace the commissioners critical of Walker's group. Other members of the gaming staff were also terminated.

Fed up with the activities, tribal members, supported by hereditary Chief Charles Old Bear, threw out Walker's group and replaced them with an entirely new set of leaders. One of the appointed council's first moves was to reinstate the old gaming commission and its staff.

But the National Indian Gaming Commission, an independent federal agency, says operation of the casino by the "dissident group" violates federal law. NIGC succeeded in convincing a federal judge in Iowa to shut down the facility in late May, just days after a special election was held in which the overwhelming majority of tribal members voted Walker and his group out of office.

Since then, the dispute has bounced back and forth between the two factions, their lawyers and their lobbyists. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals is being asked by both sides to reopen the casino but the judges, at oral argument last month, appeared to say their options were limited.

"If there's ever a case that cried out for settlement, it's this case," said Judge Michael J. Melloy. "But apparently it can't happen for whatever reason."

The BIA's letter last Monday was the agency's first concrete attempt at helping resolve the situation. Up until then, the agency had stayed on the sidelines despite pleas of intervention by tribal members.

Relevant Links:
Meskwaki Tribe Litigation, 8th Circuit Court of Appeals -

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Some Meskwaki casino workers jumping ship (8/7)
Meskwaki factions ask court to reopen casino (07/25)
Meskwaki factions and NIGC head to court on casino (7/24)
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