BIA inertia under fire
William Bills, self-described Shoshone and casino entrepreneur who for a time gained control of the Winnemucca Indian Colony chair, is under arrest in Lodi, Calif., after long years of controversy laced with charges and countercharges of fraud, forgery and murder.
Winnemucca tribal members know exactly who they blame—not Bills but the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
At a news conference Saturday, colony leader Thomas Wasson said BIA is reluctant to deal with the colony because it has never accepted federal funds. He said he believes that when confronted with problems in Winnemucca, BIA officials say, “Wait a minute—here’s Winnemucca Indian Colony. They’re self sufficient.”
Wasson said BIA’s hands-off attitude toward the tribe would be fine, if it would clean up the messes it creates when it’s not keeping hands off.
It was the BIA that recognized Bills as colony chair after he had been exposed as a Filipino. Since then—a period of years—the colony has been without a BIA-recognized chair, hampering its ability to function. In the absence of action by the BIA to sort it out, competing groups have moved to fill the vacuum.
Bills came on the scene of the colony in 1996. He spent time with his dying father, enrolled colony member Ermon Bills. He ingratiated himself with members of the colony and became a member of the governing council. Then Glenn Wasson learned that Bills was the adopted son of Ermon Bills and a full-blooded Filipino. A council meeting to decide Bills’ fate was set for March 11, 2000. Glenn Wasson was murdered on Feb. 25.
Bills succeeded to the chair of the colony council, and was recognized as such by BIA Superintendent Norma Moyle on Feb. 25, 2000. Bills then started wreaking havoc in the colony, suspending the voting rights and financial privileges of other council members and selling topsoil from the murder scene to a construction company.
The BIA withdrew its recognition of Bills but didn’t recognize anyone else, leaving a legal vacuum. Bills was voted out of office in an election whose validity he challenged. He appeared in Lodi in June ("Native gambler,” RN&R, July 21) and delivered letters to town officials representing himself as Winnemucca colony chair and said he would be opening a tribal casino in Flag City, west of Lodi.
On Sept. 30, Bills allegedly delivered paperwork to a Wells Fargo branch bank in Lodi to authorize his use of funds in the Winnemucca colony accounts. Bank workers contacted the colony, were told Bills had no claim on colony money, and brought in the police, who set up a sting. Bills was called and told he could come to the bank and pick up his paperwork. While he was at the bank, he was arrested. He was found to be in possession of a security pass to Travis Air Force Base and other identity documents. He was charged with suspicion of attempted grand theft and other crimes.
At the news conference, colony spokespeople said the colony was well on the way to dealing with Bills when the BIA stepped in to lend him legitimacy, sanctioning all his later activity. BIA spokesperson Robert Hunter said of agency’s recognition of Bills, “We had no reason to question it because the colony had accepted him on the council.”
Colony attorney Treva Hearne said the BIA’s actions would probably prevent prosecution of Bills: “I don’t see how they can prosecute him. … How can he be guilty of taking money that’s not his when we don’t know whose it is?”
Hearne said three requests have been made to the BIA for action.
“How do you get the federal government to get off the dime?” she asked.
Thomas Wasson said the federal government, by allowing the lethargy of the BIA, had encouraged crime that it would not tolerate in its own operations.
“It’s clearly identity theft, is what it is. … What if I said I was George Bush and wrote executive orders?”
A sample of the difficulties the colony faces because of the turmoil is a legal action filed by Bank of America to determine who is entitled to use the colony’s half-million dollar account. As a result, the account is frozen, preventing the colony from distributing scholarships to its younger members.