SACRAMENTO — Two women fighting for control of a tiny tribe that plans a 2,000-slot casino in rural Northern California have settled their differences after four years of legal wrangling, ending a dispute that spawned a frenetic Washington lobbying blitz and helped to bring down a Bush administration official.
Rhonda Morningstar Pope -- a 34-year-old former bookkeeper and the tribe's last adult blood heir -- is assuming control of the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians under a legal agreement signed last week. The tribe's former chairwoman, Donnamarie Potts, has stepped aside, but she and her children remain members.
Their feud over control of the tribe's 67-acre reservation in Amador County, about 30 miles southeast of Sacramento, fueled a legal and political battle that drew national attention after California voters approved Indian gambling in 2000.
Each woman won backing from deep-pocketed benefactors angling to build a casino on the wind-swept reservation. It's a pastoral setting of gnarled oaks and golden grasses in a valley served by two-lane county roads and dominated by agriculture.
Potts, who didn't return calls for comment, was backed by Cascade Entertainment Group, which spent millions in an attempt to build the casino. Her attorney also did not return calls.
Pope, though initially opposed to Indian gambling, eventually joined forces with Thomas Wilmot, a Rochester, N.Y., shopping mall developer now heavily involved with building Indian casinos.
Pope said Tuesday that she was forced by financial need to modify her stand and embrace a Buena Vista casino.
"I had to make some accommodation to achieve my goal of protecting the land," Pope said, adding: "I had to be realistic. I couldn't just get a second and third job to finance my legal fees."
At first, Pope said, she agreed only to join with Wilmot to back a casino on land off the reservation, fearing that a huge gambling hall would desecrate a tiny tribal cemetery and other sacred sites on the reservation. With Wilmot's backing, a large parcel nearby was bought as a potential casino site.
But with the legal fight dragging on and the federal government frowning on off-reservation casinos, Pope said she eventually decided to embrace the prospect of a gambling hall on the reservation -- as long as she retained control over how it was built.
She expressed confidence that the project could be pulled off without encroaching on the cemetery, which holds the remains of her father, Jesse Flying Cloud Pope. Aside from ensuring that buildings are far from such ancestral sites, Pope said she intends to ride herd on architectural planning and other details to ensure that the project blends with the environment.
Local residents, however, are greeting news of the looming casino development with dismay.
Richard Forster, an Amador County supervisor, said a casino would destroy the quality of life in one of the county's last agricultural valleys, clogging narrow roads with traffic while boosting crime in an area mostly free of urban problems.
Forster said the county hopes to challenge the tribe's right to conduct Las Vegas-style gambling on the property, and has asked state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer for a legal opinion.
Meanwhile, county officials are upset that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who renegotiated a gambling compact with the Buena Vista tribe last year, said casinos are a better fit for rural counties, like Amador, than urban settings.
The Buena Vista dispute was an early example of the big money and charged politics that Indian casinos were bringing to California. In two years, from 2000 to 2002, the argument between Pope and Potts mushroomed into all-out war in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
Potts and her sponsor hired big-name political strategists -- mostly Republicans -- on both coasts.
As lobbyists blitzed the Interior Department, a high-level department official was fired amid accusations of attempted extortion. The official, Wayne Smith, said he was being framed because he wouldn't take special action to help Potts.
The FBI and Interior's inspector general launched investigations, but federal prosecutors decided in May that they would not bring a case against anyone, an Interior official said.