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Duroville owner strikes back at BIA

His lawsuit alleges false accusations. Meanwhile, the bureau discusses reopening its case against the run-down Thermal trailer park.

September 07, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

The owner of a Thermal trailer park accused of providing substandard housing for 4,000 tenants filed a federal lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Thursday, alleging its superintendent in Southern California had stigmatized him as a slumlord and is motivated by racial animosity.

The move came the same day the BIA met with Riverside County officials and members of the U.S. attorney's office to discuss plans to reopen an earlier lawsuit against the park, which demanded a number of repairs be made.

"We are going to move for closure of the park," said James Fletcher, who heads the bureau's Southern California office.

What that would mean for the low-wage farmworkers living in the park on the Torres Martinez reservation is unknown. The BIA says that's the county's responsibility.

"The BIA is responsible for Indian land," he said.

In his suit against Fletcher and the BIA, Harvey Duro, owner of Desert Mobile Home Park -- known to residents as Duroville -- accused the BIA of defaming him, making false accusations and unfairly targeting Latinos and Native Americans. Duro, a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian tribal council, is seeking unspecified monetary damages and is representing himself. He was not available for comment Thursday.

After a fire burned six trailers in May, Fletcher ordered inspections of the park, which he said showed that Duro had not made changes ordered by the BIA in 2004. He said there was sewage water on the ground, trailers were too close together, the electrical system was unsafe and there was no emergency evacuation plan.

The park does not need to adhere to local building and safety codes because it's on Native American land, which is exempt from those local government regulations.

Fletcher said he expected his agency to take Duro to court next month.

Park representatives said the predominantly Latino tenants, among the poorest people in Riverside County, now were withholding rent to save up in case they have to move.

Duro has responded to the recent events by hiring a spokesman and filing Thursday's lawsuit.

The suit contends that Fletcher publicly cited problems at the park but never revealed the inspection report to the owner. Fletcher said he briefed Duro and tribal leaders on the contents of the report.

"The clear implication of the stories circulated by Defendant Fletcher was that Mr. Duro was a slumlord when in fact he had expended tens of thousands of dollars in improvements," the suit says. "These misrepresentations caused enormous financial harm and emotional stress to Plaintiff and the tenants."

Fletcher is charged with grossly misrepresenting conditions at the park.

"Fletcher's actions were performed, in part, out of an animus or racial hatred toward Native-Americans and Hispanics who occupy the mobile home park," the suit alleges.

"Racism is the furthest thing from my mind. These people need a safe place to live," Fletcher said in a brief response to the suit.

Fletcher is Native American and a member of the Pechanga Band of LuiseƱo Indians in Temecula.

The Riverside County Fire Department has criticized the park as a fire hazard. Local officials, housing agencies, legal foundations and tenants themselves also have condemned conditions within the 40-acre park.

The Environmental Protection Agency has cited Duroville for clean water violations. It also required the park to fence off pools of raw sewage.

In December, the EPA warned Duro that it would take enforcement action if he didn't stop illegal dumping and other environmental violations. Since then, they have been working together on a resolution.

But Duro's lawsuit focuses almost entirely on Fletcher.

Alan Singer, Duro's spokesman, said Fletcher was sidestepping his "duty of loyalty to Native Americans, including Harvey Duro."

"This is just a continuation of the sad history of another power-hungry government agency that is out of control," he said.

david.kelly@latimes.com

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