By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Mark spoke at my uncle’s funeral. His brother sang at my son’s dedication to the tribe,” says Gomez. “I thought we were pretty close when we were lobbying together for the tribe. But then, as our power grew — and let me tell you, we have a lot of power in Sacramento — I could see this sort of Napoleonic complex emerge. He loved to send out BlackBerry messages with, like, ‘Fuck you! Fuck you, you guys. You don’t know what you’re doing.’ He became a control freak.”
Ironically, Macarro’s own lineage seems blurry, and he was not a significant presence on the reservation until after gaming was legalized in 1996.
Chairman Macarro, consistent with the tribe’s usual stand on these matters, refused to comment on this story. When KNBC produced a story on disenrollments last year, the tribe bought a pre-emptive rebuttal commercial designed specifically to air just before the news segment, then at the last minute granted a brief interview to reporter Colleen Williams. “This has never been about money,” Macarro told Williams in response to accusations of greed on the part of tribal leadership. “This is about the integrity of tribal citizenship here at Pechanga. If there was a corn field instead of a casino, these same challenges would have taken the same path to the same conclusion.”
A number of tribe members interviewed for this report, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal, insist that the purges were not only motivated by economic reasons but also by a desire by Macarro to consolidate power. Gomez was a popular figure who had an independent base and whom Macarro might have perceived as a threat to his own position.
“No coincidence that getting rid of the Gomez family came right before the re-election vote for Macarro,” says one tribe member. “In one stroke he got rid of 10 percent of the voters, a big enough chunk that could have swung the election against him.”
A few months after Gomez was canned, the Concerned Pechanga People — now operating as a thinly veiled “AstroTurf” front group for the tribal leadership — once again reared its head, with a written demand that a second extended family, the descendants of Paulina Hunter, also be expelled.
Alarm bells suddenly went off among the more astute leaders of the tribe. After all, the Pechanga had been widely admired for possessing what appeared to be one of the most progressive of California Indian leaderships. With its newfound wealth, the tribe invested heavily in internal educational and cultural projects. The Pechanga language was once again being taught to the children.
“At the Pechanga reservation preschool, Indian boys and girls sing ‘Ten Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed’ in a language that’s 10,000 years old,” the Sacramento Bee wrote in 2003. The tribal cultural heritage was being reconstructed. And perhaps most importantly, the tribe had become a major behind-the-scenes player in state politics, its leadership hobnobbing with Sacramento power brokers and lavishing favors and contributions on lobbyists and policymakers. The last thing it needed was a dirty, public, Sopranos-like bloodbath waged over gambling profits.
Anthony Miranda, a veteran architect of the tribe’s gambling and business strategy, swung into action and circulated a petition calling on the tribe to halt any further disenrollments. (Miranda, current chair of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, did not respond to a request for an interview.) After getting enough signatures, Miranda’s proposal came before a general membership meeting of the tribe in the summer of 2005. And it passed by a clear majority.
Sensing a startling erosion in his political base and once again facing re-election, Chairman Macarro, along with his allies in the tribal leadership, reacted in precisely the opposite way to that intended by the petitioners.
“Now they knew they had to get rid of the Hunter family as well,” says Gomez. “Mark’s electoral majority was clearly at risk, and the Hunters represented a possible 100 votes against him.”
Blatantly ignoring the general membership’s ban on further disenrollment, the tribal leadership notified the extended Hunter family of their expulsion in mid-2005. It was formalized in the fall of 2006. In the meantime, Macarro was re-elected chairman.
The winding, bumpy dirt road into the Pechanga reservation might as well be in a different universe from the sulfur-lit thoroughfares that lead into the nearby casino. You’d never guess from appearances that those who inhabit the ramshackle trailers and mobile homes that line the road are part-owners of the virtual money-minting casino a few minutes away.
“For a lot of these people, the reservation is just a P.O. box,” says the tribe member who has driven me in. “If you declare this as your legal residence, you pay no rent, almost no property tax, and most importantly you pay no state tax on the per capita monthly payment,” he says, referring to the juicy payout from the casino.
Many of the families who “live” on the rez have second and even third homes elsewhere. Chairman Macarro lives on the ritzy so-called “Millionaire’s Row” in the toniest neighborhood in Temecula.