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Judge orders Mnuchin to give Native American tribes full stimulus funding

The Hill logo The Hill 6/17/2020 Rebecca Beitsch
Steven Mnuchin wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Judge orders Mnuchin to give Native American tribes full stimulus funding © Provided by The Hill Judge orders Mnuchin to give Native American tribes full stimulus funding

A federal judge is once again ordering Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to release the full amount of stimulus funding Congress set aside for Native American tribes.

A Tuesday decision from U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta was particularly critical of Mnuchin's decision to hold back $679 million in funding set aside for tribes while waiting on a decision in another case that will determine whether tribal businesses are eligible for the funding.

"The Secretary has now taken more than twice as much time as Congress directed to distribute all CARES Act funds," Mehta wrote, referring to the $2.2 trillion March legislation that sets aside $8 billion for tribal governments.

"The 80 days they have waited, when Congress intended receipt of emergency funds in less than half that time, is long enough."

The Treasury Department did not respond to request for comment.

"Sovereign Nations shouldn't have to fight for money that Congress approves, ever. It's shameful that a judge has to force the Treasury to do their job," Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, said on Twitter.

Tribes have waged a months-long battle to gain access to the funds set aside by Congress. It wasn't until May that Treasury announced it would begin releasing the first 60 percent of CARES funding, following a decision just a week prior from Mehta blocking the department from giving the funds to Native-owned corporations in Alaska.

Mehta's decision blocked so-called Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs), which have vast land holdings and secure significant profits from timber and oil sales, from receiving funds, as they are not government entities. A form from the Department of the Interior included space for ANCs to apply for the funding.

ANCs have appealed and the case is still working its way through court, but Mehta said Mnuchin has not been directed to reserve any funding for them.

"That amount is being withheld of the Secretary's own accord," Mehta wrote. "The Secretary's withholding of $672 million 'to resolve any potentially adverse decision in litigation' ... simply cannot be justified."

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, accused the Trump administration of having "dawdled with this funding" while Native American communities are ravaged by the effects of the coronavirus.

"The Trump Treasury Department has inexcusably dragged its feet in getting this urgent money, which Congress specifically provided for Tribal governments, out the door. The Trump Administration has come up with excuse after excuse for its baseless delay. But now that the Court has weighed in unequivocally, there can be no more excuses," Udall said in a statement.

Updated at 5:20 p.m.

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