Spotlight 29 Casino.
Spotlight 29 Casino. ()

A Minnesota attorney who faces five years in prison for fleecing a California Indian tribe of thousands of dollars in federal money has become ineligible to practice law in the Golden State.

On Wednesday, the State Bar of California decided that Gary Kovall, a graduate of Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, was ineligible given his Feb. 21 guilty plea to conspiracy to commit bribery. Kovall, a solo practitioner in Ely, Minn., who served as general counsel to the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, was scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 29.

Kovall’s attorney, Edward Robinson of the Law Offices of Edward M. Robinson in Torrance, Calif., did not return a call for comment.

Kovall’s alleged co-conspirator, David Alan Heslop, 76, was sentenced on June 30 to 21 months in federal prison. Heslop, named by presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as chairman of the National Advisory Council on Educational Research and Improvement, pleaded guilty on April 7 to conspiracy to commit bribery.

Heslop’s attorney, David Shapiro of San Francisco’s Boersch Shapiro, had sought probation for his client, the founding director of Claremont McKenna College’s Rose Institute of State and Local Government. He filed a notice of appeal of his conviction and sentence on Thursday.

“I think the sentencing decision was harsh,” he said. “But more importantly, we believe we have a very strong argument on appeal that the conviction should be vacated.”

He said that his client, whose plea agreement was conditional to allow him to petition the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, plans to argue that there was no federal crime since the money came from companies owned by the tribe—not the tribe itself. Heslop made similar arguments in unsuccessful attempts to win dismissal of the charges against him.

The tribe, meanwhile, has filed court papers seeking more than $21 million in restitution.

On Thursday, the leader of the tribe praised the prison sentence.

“This decision reinforces the notion that if someone takes advantage of Native Americans, they will be held accountable,” chairman Darrell Mike said in a prepared statement. The tribe, whose members are descendants of the Chemeheuvi, resides in California’s Mojave Desert and operates the Spotlight 29 Casino in Coachella.

According to federal prosecutors, from 2006 to 2008 Kovall persuaded the tribe to hire Paul Phillip Bardos, a general contractor, for work including casino-related duties. Bardos, awarded nearly $3 million in contracts, allegedly paid more than $600,000 in kickbacks to Heslop, who then paid nearly $300,000 to Kovall’s girlfriend at the time, Peggy Anne Shambaugh.

Bardos, who pleaded guilty to tax evasion on Feb. 18, also is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 29.

Shambaugh, now Kovall’s wife, faces a Dec. 2 trial, but prosecutors have agreed to drop the charges against her pending completion of a pretrial diversion program in 18 months.

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.