The casino-rich Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe of central Michigan, one of the most economically and politically powerful tribes in the nation, was in turmoil today after the removal of its governing tribal council by the Clinton administration's top Indian official.

Kevin Gover, assistant secretary of interior for Indian affairs, said he removed the council because it had failed to leave office after four disputed elections and had illegally altered the tribal constitution.

Gover replaced the 10-member tribal council headed by Chief Kevin Chamberlain with 12 candidates who Gover said had received the largest number of votes in the most recent election. In a letter faxed to Chamberlain last night, Gover said he had ordered the Bureau of Indian Affairs's area director in Isabella County, Mich., to stop dealing with Chamberlain's holdover council in favor of the 12 opposition candidates who ran in the disputed election.

The ousted council's tribal attorney, Richard Monette, called Gover's action "absolutely stunning" and "arbitrary, capricious and illegal."

Monette appeared before U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler in Washington late today and asked for a temporary restraining order against Gover on the grounds that his action went beyond his authority as BIA head. Kessler denied the request but scheduled a meeting Friday between lawyers for both sides to discuss a schedule for submitting briefs on a requested preliminary injunction against Gover.

In his letter to Chamberlain, Gover said that besides unconstitutionally holding onto power after repeatedly losing elections, Saginaw Chippewa council officials had contributed to what he called "an unflattering newspaper article about me."

He was referring to a Washington Post article earlier this month in which tribal leaders across the country were quoted as criticizing Gover for heading an "insensitive" BIA administration and failing to adequately represent the interests of Indians in such matters as putting newly acquired land outside Indian reservations into federal trusteeship and failing to meet a June deadline for submitting a plan for reallocating the disbursement of congressionally approved federal funds for tribes.

Monette and tribal judge Bruce Hinmon were quoted in the article, along with leaders of other tribes who were among a dozen tribal officials interviewed. In his letter, Gover said he had been advised by the Interior Department's ethics office that despite his knowledge of the Saginaw Chippewa officials' "contribution" to the article, he could properly be the "deciding official" on the seating of the new tribal council.

Monette said that Hinmon, as tribal judge, had signed an injunction preventing the council installed by Gover's ruling from seating itself in the tribal chambers, disbursing money or enacting changes to tribal laws. Monette said the new council promptly fired Hinmon, but that "the judge and all his court personnel are still in the court."

Staff writer Bill Miller in Washington contributed to this report.