- By Levi Rickert
WASHINGTON — A federal district court judge ruled Monday that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin cannot disburse any of the $8 billion of CARES Act relief funding intended for tribal governments to for-profit Alaska Native Corporations.
U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta
In a ruling issued this evening, U.S. District Court Judge Amit P. Mehta granted a preliminary injunction to prevent Mnuchin from disbursing any of the Title V funds to any ANC. The ruling is a favorable outcome for 18 tribes, including six from Alaska, that had filed three separate lawsuits to block Mnuchin from distributing funds to the shareholder-owned ANCs.
While the court enjoined the Treasury Secretary from sending funds to ANCs, Mehta’s ruling did not direct Mnuchin to disburse the entire $8 billion in emergency relief funds to the 574 federally recognized tribes.
In the ruling, Mehta writes: “Enjoining the Secretary from disbursing funds to ANCs remedies the immediate harm that Plaintiffs face—the payment of Title V funds to ANCs that will be unrecoverable once made. The added relief that Plaintiffs seek—an order directing the Secretary to distribute the full $8 billion only to federally recognized tribes—is greater than necessary to protect them against that injury. To be sure, the more limited remedy could mean that Plaintiffs will receive a lesser share of Title V funds in the short term, if the Secretary decides to award some money to ANCs and withholds those payments to comply with the court’s order. But at least such funds will remain available for later disbursement to federally recognized tribes for coronavirus-related public services, if the court ultimately enters a final judgment in Plaintiffs’ favor.”
The Department of Treasury indicated last Friday that it would not distribute any of the funds prior to Tuesday, April 28.
After the decision, tribal organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), released statements.
"NCAI is encouraged by the U.S. District Court’s decision to side with tribal governments by issuing a preliminary injunction that will halt distribution of CARES Act funding to non-governmental entities," commented NCAI President Fawn Sharp to Native News Online. "Tribal nations should not have to wait any longer to receive relief funding as they battle the coronavirus pandemic. We again call on Congress and the Administration to shift focus back to distributing much needed funding to Indian Country.”
"Federal District Court Judge Mehta made it clear that the Alaska Native Corporations are not considered governments," Dante Desiderio, executive director of the Native American Finance Officers Association, told Native News Online this evening. "This is a strong and clear win for tribal governments and marks the end of an ill-timed and bold challenge by Alaska corporations for government funds during a pandemic. We are hopeful that tribal and Alaska village governments will receive the much needed funds quickly as was intended by Congress."
The Navajo Nation, one of tribes, that joined the lawsuit last Thursday responded to the judge's decision.
“Federally-recognized tribes stood together to oppose the actions of the Department of the Treasury in another attempt to undermine the first citizens of this country, but our voices were heard and Indigenous people prevailed today! I’m sure there will be other attempts to direct these funds away from tribes, but we need to remain strong in our position and continue to ask our congressional delegation to continue fighting alongside us for our fair share of CARES Act funding,” President Jonathan Nez said.
Two associations representing the Alaska corporations weighed in with statements on Monday evening. The ANCSA Regional Association (ARA) and Alaska Native Village Corporation Association (ANVCA) released the following joint statement regarding Monday’s ruling to Native News Online:
“We are disappointed in this decision. We still believe our position will find success in the court system, as the law is clear. This will mean a delay in necessary resources and economic assistance for Alaska Native people in our communities and our state. However, Alaska Native people have a history of resilience and strength. Together we will prevent the spread of COVID-19, care for those who get sick, and repair our economies."
This is a developing story and will be updated.