Developer challenges tribe’s takeover of Skywalk

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) March 2012

The developer of the Grand Canyon Skywalk has returned to federal court to challenge a northern Arizona tribe’s decision to cut him out of managing the popular tourist attraction without a way to contest that decision.

The Hualapai Tribe declared eminent domain over the management contract earlier this month and said it will pay Las Vegas businessman David Jin $11 million in compensation. Both sides have accused the other of failing to uphold an agreement under which Jin is supposed to split revenue with the tribe for 25 years in exchange for his investment to build it.

Jin’s company, Grand Canyon Skywalk Development, sued Tribal Council members and the tribe’s business arm late last week, contending his constitutional, due process and just compensation rights have been violated. The lawsuit also argues that the tribe doesn’t have civil jurisdiction over Jin.

“It’s an injustice,” Troy Eid, an attorney for Jin, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s exactly the kind of injustice Indian tribes have fought against for so many years. People have taken things that belong to them, and sadly this group has taken property that doesn’t belong to it.”

The lawsuit came a day before the tribal court in Peach Springs held a hearing on the tribe’s request for a temporary restraining order to keep Jin’s company from destroying or damaging any property at the Skywalk. The tribal court granted the request, but the chief judge whose daughter is on the tribal council said further proceedings in the case would be handled by a pro-tem judge who is not Hualapai.

The glass-shaped bridge extends 70 feet from the rim of the Grand Canyon, giving visitors a view of the Colorado River 4,000 feet below.

Tribal spokesman Dave Cieslak said the Skywalk is operating better than ever now under the tribe’s management. He said the tribe anticipates Jin’s lawsuit will be dismissed, as have two others that he has filed against the tribe – one in tribal court to force arbitration and another in federal court to keep the tribe from enforcing eminent domain over the Skywalk.

“Sadly, we predicted that Mr. Jin’s army of lawyers would resort to desperate tactics like filing yet another federal court action,” Cieslak said.

The two sides had been in arbitration before the Tribal Council voted to enforce eminent domain. Eid said the action gives Jin no way argue for what he believes is just compensation – more than $100 million – or that the Tribal Council illegally took Jin’s property.

The lawsuit hinted at ripple effects throughout Indian Country, saying the willingness of non-Natives to invest money in tribes likely would be destroyed if the Hualapai Tribe’s action stands. Jin approached the tribe in 1996 with a plan to build the Skywalk and invested millions of dollars in it.

Jin’s attorneys are seeking a temporary restraining order to curb what it says it’s a gross abuse of legislative and administrative power.

“What I’m hearing is absolute shock that a matter in arbitration would result in the tribe walking out and purporting to condemn somebody’s contract and not having any process for that person,” said Eid, a former U.S. attorney. “It’s not a Native way people understand; it’s not an American way. It’s simply unprecedented.”

But Cieslak said the Hualapai Tribe works with hundreds of non-Native vendors and has good relationships that have lasted years.

“This is a singular issue and solely revolves around Mr. Jin’s inability to honor his end of the contract and complete the work he promised,” he said.