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Hualapai 'couldn't keep up' after taking over Skywalk

Sherry Counts

KINGMAN - Hualapai Tribal Chairwoman Sherry Counts has acknowledged that a tribe-owned entity had trouble tracking Grand Canyon Skywalk revenues after it took over the tourist attraction through eminent domain in 2012.

"That's because they were using old cash registers that couldn't keep up with the ticket sales," she said. "The manager came to the council and asked for new registers. Now we have high-tech registers and an armored car service that takes the money to the bank."

That eminent domain seizure, however, is one of many points of contention with Skywalk developer David Jin, who is locked in a legal battle with the tribe that's worth millions of dollars.

Jin's attorney, Mark Tratos, jumped on Counts' statement.

"The tribe's top elected official, Chairwoman Sherry Counts, now acknowledges that there were financial irregularities after they took over the Skywalk because they used old cash registers," he said. "The irony is that they ripped out the sophisticated point of sales (program) Grand Canyon Skywalk Development had in place the day they took over.

"The day they took over, they also cut the cables to the security cameras, which were installed by Grand Canyon Skywalk Development management. Why did they do that? Where did the money go?"

Tratos' comments are backed up by sworn testimony from former Skywalk Director of Operations Anthony Dobbs.

But, Counts said, no money disappeared.

"So much that is negative is being said about the council, but truly, the business of the tribe is going on. We haven't lost anything," Counts said. "We just want what is best for the people."

Permanent break

The once-promising and potentially lucrative relationship between the tribe and Jin is most likely beyond repair, Counts said.

"I'm a positive person. I like to think positively, but I think this is like a divorce," she said. "We just need to go our separate ways. I don't hate Mr. Jin, but I don't think we can reconcile our differences.

"If we're going to be successful, we have to manage our own resources."

Jin's company, Grand Canyon Skywalk Development, and the Hualapai Tribe's company, Sa' Nyu Wa, have been battling over who is responsible for finishing the visitor center at the tourist attraction and how to split the proceeds of the ticket sales for the last four years. The Skywalk is a glass walkway that juts out from the rim of the Grand Canyon.

"We have really good attorneys and I trust them, but I don't want to be caught up in the law (over the Skywalk) forever," Counts said. "This is not easy for us and it can't be easy for Mr. Jin."

Tratos agreed that the relationship has been rocky.

"As to this being like a divorce ... perhaps so ... In this marriage, the tribe and David Jin have a pre-nuptial agreement which is the contract they signed together," he said. "That contract requires that David Jin be compensated fairly for the initial $30 million he invested when he built the Grand Canyon Skywalk, for his successful management of the Skywalk making it a world-famous tourist attraction, and for the future rights under that contract."

The issue is really about the right of the Hualapai people to govern their land, Counts said.

"This is about sovereignty, about managing business on our own land," she said. "I've had calls from people who belong to other tribes. They say that (this case is) not just about your tribe. I know that. That's why we have to stand firm.

"We can't risk not standing up against this. (This) is our whole future," she said, referring to an arbitration settlement Jin Sa' Nyu Wa may have to pay if a court rules against it.

"We agree that the Hualapai are a sovereign nation. But the law says even sovereigns must act justly," Tratos said. "This sovereign has not done so because they seized the Skywalk by eminent domain without having the ability to pay David Jin justly. And thus far they have avoided paying the $28.6 million entered against them by the U.S. District Court in favor of David Jin."

Counts denied allegations that the tribal council is mismanaging the Skywalk, that the council is hoarding ticket money or that money has gone missing.

The tribal council does not run the Skywalk or its Grand Canyon West attraction, Counts said. All of that is handled by Grand Canyon Resort Corporation, which took over from Sa' Nyu Wa after it filed for bankruptcy in March.

The manager of Grand Canyon Resort does report to the council and the council does help fund the attraction, she said. But the council does not deal with the day-to-day operations.

Money from the Skywalk helps fund projects throughout the community, Counts said, such as transportation for seniors to medical appointments, child welfare programs, a day care center, assisted living facilities, a new police department office, a substance abuse program and other social services the tribe needs.

Tratos disagreed.

"The tribe has never itemized how much they have taken from Skywalk ticket sales or what exactly they have spent the money on or how they prioritized any benefit for the Tribe," he said. "They are not being transparent. There has not been full disclosure. The Tribal Council is not being candid with its own people or the outside world."

Ted Quasula, a Hualapai tribal member, said, "Every tribal program Sherry Counts described was in place long before the tribe seized operation of the Skywalk."

Counts considered publishing a copy of the tribal government's budget, but stopped after the council attorneys suggested Jin might use the information against them in court.

"Not everyone hates the Hualapai Tribe," she said. There are more than 200 outside vendors that work with the tribe on a daily basis and the tribe is working on getting even more to provide a greater variety of options for visitors to Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk.

"We all have different viewpoints," Counts said. "There's nothing wrong with that. We need to listen to all those viewpoints and bring them together so it can benefit the community."

Tratos said Jin doesn't hate the Hualapai people or the council.

"David Jin respects the Hualapai people very much and that's why he built the architectural marvel, which is the Skywalk, and turned over the keys to the Hualapai," he said. "All he asked for in return was that they honor the contract they entered into with him."

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