Tribe wants training center off reservation
Union Tribune (2011-10-10) J Harry Jones
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More Info: Eagle Rock Training Center
The Los Coyotes Indian tribe has issued an eviction notice to the operators of a paramilitary training center on its 25,000-acre reservation in the northeastern part of the county.
The Eagle Rock Training Center (ERTC), entered into a seven-year lease with the tribe in March 2010 to operate a military and police training center on the reservation. The tribe’s then chairwoman upped the lease to a 25-year commitment later in the year.
However, tribal officials maintain the lease is not binding because the full tribe never approved it, and they now want Eagle Rock off its property.
Three weeks ago Eagle Rock filed a federal lawsuit against the tribe that included a request for a temporary and permanent restraining order to prevent the tribe from harming any of its employees and to allow a scheduled training session to go on. The company withdrew the restraining order request after the tribe agreed to allow the training, which was to begin Sept. 21.
Many legal issues, though, still exist — namely is the lease valid, has the tribe given up its sovereign immunity as a condition of the lease, and will Eagle Rock employees be allowed on the reservation.
For now, said the tribe’s attorney, Mark Radoff, the eviction of Eagle Rock has been delayed until the end of the month, by which time the tribe plans to file a brief with the court. The document will argue, among other things, that the lease is invalid and the federal courts do not have jurisdiction, Radoff said.
On Friday the tribe filed an action for eviction and exclusion in the Intertribal Court of Southern California, Radoff said Monday.
While seeking the restraining order, the company says in the lawsuit that the tribe allowed two of its members to burn down a guard shack in July. The fire spread into the reservation and eventually burned 14,100 acres and cost $15 million to extinguish. Two tribal members are facing arson charges.
In response, the tribe said in court papers the burning of the guard shack is part of an ongoing arson investigation and that to suggest the tribe somehow condoned the act is wrong.
Included in the court filings are complete copies of the lease and its updated extension. Neither Eagle Rock nor the tribe had been willing to release the details of the lease in the past.
The tribe has only about 300 members, 60 or so of whom live on the reservation.
The relationship between the tribe and Eagle Rock became strained in April after tribal members became aware of the extent of training the company planned, Radoff said.
Then in May two small fires broke out on the reservation started by gunfire from Marines training at Eagle Rock, a Cal Fire official said. Following the fires, Radoff said, several tribal votes were taken to oust Eagle Rock.
According to the Eagle Rock lawsuit, Los Coyotes said the lease was invalid and on June 16 issued a Notice to Vacate that threatened to eject any Eagle Rock employee for trespassing. Maintaining the company had a valid lease good through 2035, Eagle Rock stood firm.
“Members of Los Coyotes even threatened to take matters into their own hands if ERTC did not vacate the lease property — tragically, such threats came to fruition when the tribe allowed certain tribal members to take matters into their own hands by pouring gasoline on ERTC’s security booth and lighting it on fire, and destroying new surveillance cameras that were installed following the (guard shack) fire,” the lawsuit says.
On Sept. 12, the tribe issued a Notice of Violation of Tribal Ordinances, which reiterated its position that the lease is invalid.
Eagle Rock filed the lawsuit four days later.
The original lease, entered into in March 2010, called for Eagle Rock to operate a training center for seven years. In return ERTC would pay the tribe 10 percent of its profits monthly.
Then tribal Chairwoman Francine Kupsch signed the lease. A spot on the lease where a tribal stamp and assembly/council ratification was to be placed was left blank. Signing on behalf of Eagle Rock was John W. Galt, executive director, and Brian Bonfiglio. Bonfiglio had been a vice president of Blackwater Worldwide
, a military defense contractor. On the lease he listed his title as founder of Eagle Rock.
Last month, Eagle Rock issued a brief statement saying that Bonfiglio and the training center have “parted ways” as of Sept. 12 and that Bonfiglio is no longer associated with the company.
“Since 2009, Brian has been a member of the ERTC team. His advice has helped create what will be a world class military and law enforcement training center in the future,” the release said.
Sean Roach, who became partners with Bonfiglio in 2010, said in an email to the newspaper that Bonfiglio left to be with his family on the East Coast and that the announcement of his departure was made because “we are also tired of the media trying to tie us to Blackwater.” Roach also emphasized in the news release that ERTC is not just a military training center but also a film center, and the company is in talks with two reality TV shows and one movie production to use the area.
The lease with the tribe was changed Nov. 5. It extended the agreement until 2035. In exchange, Eagle Rock agreed to give the tribe 10 percent of its profits, to build a small tribal hall and tribal office, and to build a children’s playground, among other things.
That contract was also signed by Kupsch for the tribe and by Roach, who listed himself as a member and co-founder of the center.
Kupsch was replaced as chairwoman in January 2010, according to the lawsuit.
Included in the lease signed by Kupsch was a condition waiving Los Coyotes’ sovereign immunity rights, meaning that the lease would be subject to federal laws and courts, not tribal laws.
Kupsch’s husband said she would not be talking to the media.
The tribe, in a filing in opposition to Eagle Rock’s request for a restraining order, maintains Kupsch had no legal right to agree to such a waiver, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs never approved the lease, as is required under federal law for any lease of seven years or longer.
When contacted by the Union-Tribune in April, Robert Eben, superintendent for the Southern California Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said he was unaware of any such lease between Eagle Rock and Los Coyotes. Two months later the BIA, responding to a Freedom of Information Act
request, said it had no records of a lease arrangement. Eben did not return messages for comment for this story, and a BIA official in Washington said last week that she was still trying to get information on the lease.
The tribe argues in court filings that the federal court has no jurisdiction, and a tribal court should handle the case.
Radoff said the tribe still does not recognize the federal court’s jurisdiction, and the case is in legal limbo for now.