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Federal Judge Smacks Down Mnuchin, Rules Coronavirus Funding Is for Tribal Governments and Not Corporations

A federal district judge in Washington, D.C. issued an injunction Monday against Steven Mnuchin in his official capacity as Treasury Secretary; the ruling directs the Trump administration to cease giving any coronavirus funding to Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs). The order stopped short of directing Mnuchin to distribute the appropriated $8 billion in federal aid directly to tribal governments, calling such an order, “greater than necessary to protect [the plaintiff tribes].” Given, however, that the funding was specifically appropriated for tribal governments, it would logically follow that the order ensures that the plaintiffs receive the aid.

The complaint said that tribal governments were in desperate need of funding to combat homelessness, substandard housing, and water shortages among tribal people. The 574 federally-recognized Indian tribes do not include any ANCs – which are private corporations whose shareholders are both Indians and non-Indians.

Judge Amit Mehta ruled that the appropriateness of an injunction wasn’t a close call:

Plaintiffs easily satisfy their burden to show that they will suffer irreparable injury in the absence of immediate injunctive relief. The $8 billion dollars allocated by Congress for “Tribal governments” is a fixed sum that Plaintiffs and other Tribal governments are entitled to receive to cover costs of combatting the COVID-19 pandemic in their communities Any dollars improperly paid to ANCs will reduce the funds to Plaintiffs. And, once disbursed, those funds will not be recoverable by judicial decree.

Mehta also specifically called out the administration for having attempted an unrealistic argument.

“During oral argument, Defendant suggested that funds improperly allocated to ANCs could be recovered by the agency’s Inspector General under his statutory recoupment authority,” the judge wrote. “That seems unlikely.”

This case isn’t the first time Judge Mehta has come down hard against the Trump administration. Mehta was also the judge who ruled against Donald Trump on the issue of congressional subpoenas. In that case, Mehta ruled that it’s “simply not fathomable” that Congress would lack the power to investigate the president.

In a statement, Chairman of the Chehalis Tribe Harry Pickernell Sr. applauded Monday’s ruling.

“The Chehalis tribe is pleased that the court saw what was obvious to many of us. Corporations have no place taking dollars that were allocated for tribal governments, period!” he said. “This ruling will ensure that tribes and tribal members will reap the intended benefits that Congress envisioned in the CARES Act. This ruling will help tribal governments to lead in the aid and recovery of their people.”

The statement went on to urge the Department of the Treasury to stop dragging its feet and to “follow the law and to disburse the desperately needed funds in full to tribal governments without further delay.”

[image via Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images]

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos