A once-tiny, nearly destitute American Indian tribe is pushing hard to build a $100 million casino -- but it's not traditional tribal members gunning for riches.
Hundreds of people have been newly added to the Ione Band of Miwok Indians' membership rolls, which were opened up by regional Bureau of Indian Affairs officials. Among the new members are several BIA employees and dozens of their relatives.
Four congressmen have called for an investigation, though federal officials have so far declined to intervene. Rep. Nick Rahall, ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee, called the BIA's move an apparent "coup d'etat" that should make other tribes "tremble with fear."
Regional BIA officials opened the membership against the traditional leaders' wishes to include members from two other bands in the area. The federal officials then oversaw an Aug. 10, 2002, election that swapped the old leaders for a pro-casino group that includes some of the BIA employees themselves.
Before the Bureau of Indian Affairs became involved, the Ione Band had about 70 members living on land near Ione, about 40 miles east of Sacramento in the rolling hills of one of California's wine regions.
Now the band's official membership has swelled to 535. None of the new members is related to the original 70.
Amy Dutschke, a member of another American Indian group whose family has roots in the Ione area, was the BIA's acting regional director in June 2002 when she authorized the Ione Band's last leadership election, documents show.
Now Dutschke and 68 of her relatives are on the tribe's official list of registered voters. They include her uncle and a niece, who also work for Indian Affairs, according to tribal rolls, a BIA employee list and opposition members.
The election was overseen by Indian Affairs employee Carol Rogers-Davis, whom the BIA named chair of the elections board. She now has three relatives on the tribal roll, records show.
The election produced five new tribal leaders, four of whom are related to Dutschke.
Matt Franklin, the new tribal chairman recognized by the BIA, said he could provide documents proving the legitimacy of the tribe's expanded membership.
However, Franklin did not produce the documents after repeated requests from The Associated Press over several weeks.
Dutschke's standing with the tribe dates to a June 1994 letter from a BIA colleague to her brother, asserting that "the history of your family and its association with the Ione Band appears to be quite substantial and would certainly justify your inclusion in the reorganization process."
Internal tribal matter?
Tribal rolls and opposition members say a second cousin of Dutschke, Harold Burris, was once allowed to live on the Ione Band's property near Ione because his sister was married to the tribe's chief at the time.
In Washington, the Bureau of Indian Affairs relied on the tribal election committee's decision to refuse to investigate its own employees' involvement.
The Department of Interior's inspector general also declined to investigate, telling the complaining congressmen that it was an internal tribal matter.
A BIA spokeswoman in Washington, Nedra Darling, said she couldn't comment because the Sacramento regional office did not respond to her repeated inquiries over more than a month.
Regional officials, including Dutschke, similarly did not return repeated telephone messages left by the AP over a matter of weeks, or respond to a letter sent last month.
The tribe is now potentially eligible for millions of dollars in federal benefits. Its new leaders have been given $1.9 million from the state's Tribal Revenue Sharing Trust Fund, in which tribes with casinos contribute to non-gambling tribes. The tribe says it is using that money to offer members emergency assistance with housing, health care and energy bills.
If the tribe opens its proposed casino with 2,000 slot machines, opponents say it could bring in $185 million a year, based on the experience of other tribes.
The Ione Band is seeking permission to acquire 208 acres in Plymouth for the casino. Permission has to come from Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose office has been asked to consider granting the tribe a gambling compact.
The issue has split rural Amador County's 31,000 residents. County supervisors want Congress and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to block the casino. Plymouth City Council members support the casino, and face a May recall election because of their backing.
The regional staff of the Bureau of Indian Affairs staff and other members "took over the Ione Band," said county Supervisor Mario Biagi. "We feel there's a direct conflict of interest there."