Judge Orders Trump Administration To Give Tribes Their COVID-19 Relief Funds
WASHINGTON - A federal judge on Monday ordered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to distribute $ 679 million in COVID-19 aid to Indian tribes who should have received it months ago, and accused the agency of delaying "irreparable harm" to cause.
"A sustained delay in the face of an extraordinary public health crisis is no longer acceptable," said District Judge Amit Mehta, who provided Mnuchin with funds until Wednesday.
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Here is a copy of Mehta's opinion:
The judge's order comes after the Treasury has exceeded the deadlines for distributing coronavirus aid to tribal governments that have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic for months. Congress provided $ 8 billion for tribes when it passed the CARES Act stimulus package in late March, and instructed the finance department to get the money out by April 26. That didn't happen. The agency distributed around $ 4.8 billion at the end of May, and most of the remaining $ 3.2 billion was distributed last Friday.
The delays are largely due to the Treasury's incompetence in working with tribes, but a lawsuit over the eligibility of Alaska Native Corporations for funds also made matters more difficult. The recent problem is that Mnuchin has withheld $ 679 million in tribal funds, while a separate legal challenge involves the agency's method of calculating the amount of tribal money.
Mnuchin had argued that if the Treasury loses the case and has to pay more money to the tribe who claims he is underpaid, he will have to keep the $ 679 million. But Mehta said Monday that $ 679 million is "grossly disproportionate" to the amount of money the Treasury may have to withdraw - the tribe claims it was underpaid by $ 7.65 million - and there is no judicial one Order that prevents the agency from releasing this money to tribes.
So, Mehta concluded, Mnuchin has to pass the money on to tribes - now.
"This amount will be withheld by the secretary," said Mehta. "The Secretary's reluctance to pay $ 679 million to resolve a potentially unfair litigation decision simply cannot be justified."
A spokesman for the finance department did not respond to a request for comment.
Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) Called it "a shameful scandal" that the Trump administration has delayed the distribution of COVID-19 aid to tribes. (Photo: Alex Edelman via Getty Images)
Legislators on Capitol Hill praised the court's decision and feared that the tribes would have to wait so long to receive their COVID-19 emergency aid.
"The Court of Justice is absolutely right: This government has done 'irreparable harm' to the Indian country because it inexplicably withholds funds that Congress desperately wanted to pass on to tribal governments," said Senator Tom Udall (DN.M.), vice-chairman The Senate's Committee on Indian Affairs said HuffPost in a statement. "It is still a shameful scandal that the Trump administration has used this funding to lull people, while local communities get sick and die, and businesses and key services are shut down."
"It is not surprising that she took legal action to force this government to distribute relief to tribal governments, as Congress intended and required by law," said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), Chairman of the United States Indigenous Peoples Subcommittee on the House Natural Resources Committee.
MP Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), One of two Indian women in Congress, said it was outrageous that a court would have to intervene for the tribes to receive their federal funds.
"Sovereign nations should never have to fight for money that Congress approves," Haaland tweeted. "It is shameful that a judge has to force the Treasury to do its job."
Mehta allowed Mnuchin to withhold part of the tribal funding: $ 7.65 million if the tribe claiming to be underpaid wins its case and an undisclosed amount reserved for the Alaska Native Corporations case.
A Navajo family wears masks to protect themselves from the spread of COVID-19 in Monument Valley, Arizona. (Photo: Grandriver via Getty Images)
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