On August 1, several homeowners in the Watterson Road neighborhood of Bishop received a love letter from California Indian Legal Services.
If Watterson is a familiar address of late, that’s the area where the Fairview fire occurred, burning down nine homes on July 8.
Full disclosure: That’s my neighborhood. I received one of these letters, which were sent to all property owners within the five-acre ‘hood.
The letter from Michael Godbe, Directing Attorney for Indian Legal Services based in Bishop, states, “We write to you today to inform you of what we know will be upsetting and confusing news: that you do not own the real property identified as [insert address here] … this land is Trust property owned by the federal government and held in trust for our clients.”
Hilariously, the letter goes on to generously offer me a fifty-year lease from the Tribe – a lease for property I already have title to via Inyo County.
The letter explains that a long-dead Tribal member named Esther Watterson subdivided and sold off parcels of land from 1949-1956 without the federal government’s approval or consent, and argues those and all future conveyances are void.
The letter also claims that Watterson was forced to sell the land because the county had continued to illegally charge her property tax, creating an undue financial burden.
It all sounds pretty compelling, and the Inyo Register ran a story last week which essentially treated the letter as gospel.
What the Inyo Register didn’t do in its careless reporting was bother to talk with Inyo-Mono Title.
But we shouldn’t blame the Register too much. Calfornia Indian Legal Services rents downstairs office space from Inyo-Mono Title. It’s a whole flight of stairs. Mr. Godbe didn’t consult with Inyo-Mono Title president Jerry Core before sending his letters, either.
Nor has anyone from Inyo County or the U.S. Department of the Interior or the Bureau of Indian Affairs spoken to Mr. Core.
Core says all these agencies have done “inept research.”
If they did any research at all.
“We are the title company. That’s our business. We have documentation that shows the Department of Interior released restrictions [on the land].”
“We keep better records than Sacramento and Inyo County. If we didn’t exist, I don’t know how screwed up these counties [Inyo and Mono] would be.”
“Our research dates to the 1860s. We have documents dating to the early 1900s.”
*Btw … The parcel in question was patented in 1883 and bought and sold many times before it was ever acquired by a Paiute member.
Core believes Indian Legal Services became emboldened to pursue its case in 2019 when Inyo County opted to refund property taxes for a remaining, original Watterson family-owned lot.
The negotiated settlement was for $15,000, split amongst 6-7 heirs.
The emboldenment rationale being, if you’re refunding the taxes, you’re acknowledging you shouldn’t have taxed the property to begin with, which means you’re acknowledging you never had the power to tax it, which means you’re saying it’s not Inyo County property at all.
… Even though the settlement letter has language included which states the settlement implies no admission of wrongdoing.
Treasurer-Tax Collector Alisha McMurtrie confirmed the refund. She said the deal was negotiated by the County Counsel’s office, then headed by Marshall Rudolph.
The Sheet spoke to Supervisor Matt Kingsley on Thursday morning. He said the refund deal never came before the board – or if it did, maybe it was an item that got buried in the consent agenda.
The Sheet also spoke to Kevin Carunchio, who was the Inyo County Administrator at the time.
Carunchio said, to his vague recollection, he thought this was an issue brought to the board by an elected department head, who then turned it over to Rudolph.
“Anything like that is fairly silo’d,” he said. “And I guarantee you it would be teed up so the board [could take Counsel’s recommendation].”
Grace Chuchla in the County Counsel’s office explained, “It was a business decision. $15,000 is cheaper than litigation.” She said there was no admission of guilt. Sheet: But do you think it established precedent?
Chuchla: Not at all. But they’re entitled to their view of the situation.
The Sheet also spoke to Indian Attorney Michael Godbe on Thursday. He said, “We’re not doing any media interviews about this. Everything we have to say is in the letter.”
Lunch lobbed a few questions anyway.
“If you had information as early as 2015 that you thought this land was owned by the federal government, how come you waited seven-and-a-half years to write this letter?”
Then, “Why didn’t you speak to Jerry Core before you sent out this letter?”
No comment, no comment, blah blah.
As Core said in conclusion, “This is why you need title insurance … because they [government agencies, bored, true-believer attorneys, et. al.] don’t care about facts. And end up wasting a lot of people’s time, money and sleep.”
So why initiate this now? Simple. You’ve got a whole bunch of people out there seeking to rebuild their homes. If you cast doubt in their minds as to the land’s ownership, an alreday demoralized owner may be more likely to walk away than make improvements on land he’s worried he may not own.
As Godbe writes in his letter, “We are aware of the recent Fairview Fire and express our sincere condolences if you are one of the recipients of this letter who lost your home. However, we believe it is important to notify you of our clients’ ownership of the land that your home is/was located on as soon as possible, so that you and your family may make decisions about your next steps …”
Sincere condolences my ass.
As Core maintains, Inyo-Mono Title doesn’t just toss title insurance around willy-nilly.
“It’s gotta be very clear for us to guarantee [a buyer] a position.”
And from the ‘You Can’t Make This Shit Up’ department.
On Thursday, a few hours after my phone call with Mr. Godbe, I received the following submission to The Sheet website.
“Hi my name is Tristan Stidham, I am a staff attorney at California Indian Legal Services, I just wanted to inquire about running an ad for the eviction defense/homelessness prevention program we have just started up in the Eastern Sierras where we provide free legal aid to Inyo, Mono and Alpine County residents. We already have the image created, so I would appreciate any details on how to run it or get it printed in The Sheet. Thank you!
Lunch’s draft reply:
Sounds like a great program. I know a number of local residents who could use eviction defense. But it might be awkward having you offer me free legal aid so you can defend me against you.
With a nod to Johnny Paycheck, why don’t you take your ad and shove it?