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Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Sued for Giving Coronavirus Aid to Corporations Instead of Tribal Governments

US Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin listen to US President Donald Trump speak during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 13, 2020, in Washington, D.C. 

You had to know that distribution of coronavirus money wasn’t going to go off without a hitch or 10.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act appropriated $8 billion dollars to be distributed to “tribal governments.” This aid was specifically earmarked for easing the monetary burdens of the COVID-19 fallout. But now six federally-recognized tribes have joined together to file a lawsuit over what’s being called a mis-distribution of that $8 billion.

The anticipated relief package had been lauded as constituting critical assistance. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney said the following when the CARES Act was first passed:

The CARES Act provides a critical infusion of supplemental funding for Tribal Communities, as we rapidly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Coupled with the nearly a half billion dollars in direct appropriations to Indian Affairs, the historic $8 billion tribal set-aside will provide urgent financial assistance. I want to thank President Trump as well as U.S. Senators Murkowski, Sullivan, Daines, McSally and Congressman Tom Cole for their collective efforts to include American Indians and Alaskan Natives in this historic bill.

But a group of tribal governments filed a federal lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on Friday, alleging that the aid earmarked for them actually went to more than 230 Alaska Native for-profit corporations (ANCs).

The Association on American Indian Affairs is also demanding that Secretary Sweeney recuse herself from all actions and decision-making related to the ANCs.

The lawsuit named U.S. Treasury Steven Mnuchin as the defendant, and alleged:

The Secretary’s designation and treatment of these private corporations as Tribal governments reduces the funds available for allocation and distribution to Plaintiffs, who are in dire need of the funds to support the necessary and increased expenditures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Secretary is required to disburse all $8,000,000,000 by April 26, 2020, and Plaintiffs’ injury is imminent. Plaintiffs accordingly request that the Court preliminarily and permanently enjoin Defendant to allocate and disburse all $8,000,000,000 reserved by Congress to federally recognized Tribal governments, exclusive of Alaska Native regional corporations and village corporations (“ANCs”), according to a reasonable formula consistent with the CARES Act.

According to the complaint, the plaintiff tribal governments are in desperate need of federal funding to, among other things, “address the needs of its homeless families as well as of the many intergenerational families who live in overcrowded substandard housing, lacking water and sewer services.” Further, because there is currently no airline service, it is currently impossible for the tribes to obtain important sanitary products. 

Although 574 Indian tribes are federally-recognized and obtain what plaintiffs characterize as a “government-to-government relationship with the United States,” these tribes do not include any Alaskan Native regional or village corporation. These ANCs are private corporations with shareholders that include both Indians and non-Indians. Plaintiffs contend that the CARES Act is the sole source of funding for tribal governments, whereas private corporations have the ability to look to other sources.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. called CARES funding“what Indian Country will rely on to start up again,” adding that “Congress surely didn’t intend to put tribal governments, which are providing health care, education, jobs, job training, and all sorts of programs, to compete against these Alaska corporate interests, which looks like a cash grab.”

The lawsuit demands that Secretary Mnuchin allocate and distribute all of the $8,000,000,000 to “recognized Tribal governments,” that specifically exclude the ANCs.

[Image via Mandel Ngan AFP via 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