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5/6/2014 6:00:00 AM
Another lawsuit tangles up Hualapai Tribe and a vendor
Lisa Gala (left) of the Hualapai tribe and Bonnie Saldana of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., try their hand at lassoing at the Hualapai Ranch during an anniversary celebration in April 2012. (JC AMBERLYN/Miner)
Lisa Gala (left) of the Hualapai tribe and Bonnie Saldana of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., try their hand at lassoing at the Hualapai Ranch during an anniversary celebration in April 2012. (JC AMBERLYN/Miner)

Doug McMurdo
Miner Staff Reporter

KINGMAN - A recently signed confidential settlement between the Hualapai Tribe and the family of the late David Jin, developer of the Skywalk, might have ended years of costly litigation and negative publicity for the tribe - but a high-profile dispute with another estranged business partner is heating up.

And, in addition to the cost and the distraction, the case could have implications that go far beyond a business dispute in Northwest Arizona.

Attorneys for the western-themed tourist attraction Hualapai Ranch filed an amended lawsuit last month alleging the Grand Canyon Resort Association - the tribal-led corporation that oversees the tribe's tourist businesses - conspired to push out ranch owner James Brown.

Complicating the case is the Hualapai Tribe's status as a sovereign nation, a status they can invoke to try to avoid court scrutiny.

Ali Farhang, Brown's attorney, said the cases against the tribe regarding Jin and Brown could jeopardize the doctrine of sovereign immunity for all American Indian tribes.

"I'm surprised we don't hear more tribes speaking out against the Hualapai," said Farhang.

Tribal spokesman Dave Cieslak called the allegations "outlandish."

Dispute begins

According to Brown's lawyers, the trouble with the tribe began in 2012, when Brown was allegedly asked to sign a disparaging letter to the editor regarding Jin.

Brown reportedly refused, but did pen his own op-ed praising the tribe, but not mentioning Jin.

Several months later, according to Brown's attorneys, the tribe took the first in a series of alleged actions designed to break the 12-year contract with Brown and his company, Western Destinations, which began 2005 and was set to expire in 2017.

The legal documents make more than 35 allegations against the resort association and the Hualapai Tribal Council and names several members and non-members of the tribe as defendants.

At stake is millions of dollars, revenue Brown claims the tribe took from him after making several false claims.

The first occurred in December 2012, when the resort association sent Brown a list of alleged "events of default" on the property, including unperformed infrastructure and utility improvements. Brown was given 30 days to complete expensive and extensive work.

Brown's attorneys point out the tribe's actions were "identical" to what previously occurred to Jin, who was also accused of failing to meet his contractual obligations when the tribe first attempted to push him out of the Skywalk, a transparent platform that juts out of the western rim of the Grand Canyon, 4,000 feet above the canyon floor.

The Skywalk is a significant moneymaker for the tribe and a key employer of tribal members.

Farhang said the tribe's default letter essentially ruled every building on Hualapai Ranch was unsuitable for the public to enter.

Not only were the allegations "completely false," he said, but the requested repairs were intentionally vague and designed to be impossible to complete within the resort association's 30-day deadline.

"If you read the default letter," said Farhang in a statement, "it essentially says, 'You have 30 days to literally tear down every structure at the Hualapai Ranch and rebuild it.'"

According to the contract, the tribe and Hualapai Ranch were supposed to share profits and split expenses 50-50.

Ignored requests

More onerous for the tribe, however, is the allegation that top managers of the resort association and Tribal Council members systematically ignored Brown's repeated attempts to meet and discuss the default order until the deadline passed, at which time Brown's contract was terminated and the Grand Canyon Resort Association seized control of the business.

Spokesman Cieslak countered that Brown has made "several outlandish allegations."

Cieslak said Farhang misrepresents the contract between Hualapai Ranch and the association, saying Brown failed to improve conditions - and that he alone was responsible for making them.

"There were many conditions that (Brown) had ample time to consider and repair," said Cieslak. "Unfortunately, the manager chose not to."

Cieslak said the tribe had no choice but to terminate the contract in order to protect employees and the public.

The resort association took over management more than a year ago. The public continues to enter the buildings that were declared unsuitable for occupation. No repairs have been made, said Farhang.

"It's all documented," said Farhang. "You couldn't ask for better evidence of fraud."

But Cieslak said the association took immediate action to repair certain structures and to restrict guest access at buildings that required more intensive repairs once the ranch was seized.

Sovereign nation

The fly in the ointment is the tribe's status as a sovereign nation and whether it can avoid court scrutiny by invoking the doctrine.

When Brown sought assistance from the courts, the tribe invoked its status - an act Farhang said violates the contracts with both Brown and Jin, in which sovereign immunity was waived. The tribe abuses the doctrine as a sword, not a shield, he said.

"The vendors build and establish tourist attractions on the reservation, the tribe breaches (its) promises under contract and asserts the vendor cannot sue them in any court of law due to tribal sovereign immunity," he said.

While Cieslak said Hualapai Ranch would continue to thrive with Brown out of the picture, Farhang said the ongoing litigation could harm the tribe's finances and its reputation.

"Hopefully," he said, "the tribe will finally rein in rogue members of the GCRC board and this matter will not become another economic disaster for the Hualapai people like the Skywalk litigation."

Countered Cieslak: "While it is unfortunate that the prior management relationship has ceased, GCRC is confident that our current path will positively benefit our guests from around the world."

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Related Stories:
• Grand Canyon West lawsuit dismissed
• Lawsuit: Hualapai tribe snatched away ranch unfairly
• $28.5 million Skywalk verdict stands

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Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, May 9, 2014
Article comment by: Frank Lee Speaking

"How about we take EVERYTHING away from you and tell you to get a job?."

What great logic. If something was taken from your ancestors hundreds of years ago, you have a perfect right to never work for a living by getting a job. lol.

The English used the potato blight to starve my ancestors, steal their land through inheritance laws, forcing them to immigrate. It never occurred to me that i have a right to sit around now and whine and never work.

What they did to David Jin does much to show why you can do a search and still find the phrase "indian giver" on the Merriam-Webster dictionary website.

Anyone signing a contract with the tribe is crazy.


Posted: Friday, May 9, 2014
Article comment by: Mr. Bea

Come on now people, you never get to know as to what it really is. Unmanaged buildings, negligent grounds and a superiority that you are not accountable to a contract. Man if it were a non-Indian company no one would scrutinize the business or even take the chance in writing a piece on it. Since it is Indians trying to prosper and hold people accountable, "Who choose" to conduct business on Indian land that is a gamble. Most non-Indians expect to take advantage of Indians and it is an ongoing epidemic throughout the United States. Just look at Indian gaming all tribes have to pay a percentage to the state which then goes back on over to the non-Indians. What kind a crap is that. To think that we take advantage of our sovereignty.(SMH) We just assimilated to what your ancestors wanted us to be. We speak with a fork tongue and take what is not ours. We are typical greedy white America. If we were white it would be right!!!!!

Posted: Thursday, May 8, 2014
Article comment by: Ekim Ressem

Are you admitting that you took everything away from someone?
Were you prosecuted and made to make restitution?
I think it is good though to suggest that everybody get a job. It instills independence and a sense of worth.

I have never taken anything away from anybody but I do regularly recommend getting a job when a person doesn't have one and is able to work.

Posted: Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Article comment by: Mike Messer

@ just saying

How about we take EVERYTHING away from you? and tell you to get a JOB?

Just sayin.

Posted: Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Article comment by: just saying

If the Hualapai tribe keeps on breaking promises to contracts that they sign by invoking sovereign nation ,and can't be addressed in a foreign court . then maybe the courts should require anyone crossing that sovereign nation border have a pass reenter the USA.

Posted: Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Article comment by: V Stokes

To paraphrase Gomer Pyle..." No sur-prise, no sur-prise, no sur-prise!"

Posted: Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Article comment by: justanobody sr

why anyone chooses to do business with corrupt tribe members, is beyond me, they have a history of dishonesty,and mismanagement ( going all the way back to the failed casino)
then Jin and the skywalk, and now Brown and the ranch,
I think its about time the "sovereign nation" shield be dropped and treat them like they are.

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