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US Judge Denies Tribe's Bid To Halt Virus Relief Funding

Mike Scarcella / ALM

A federal judge in the nation’s capital has denied a request from a Native American tribe in Kansas to halt further distribution of coronavirus relief funds for tribal nations.


The Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation recently sued the U.S. Treasury Department, alleging it was shortchanged in an initial distribution of $4.8 billion. The tribe, whose reservation is north of Topeka, said the Treasury Department should have relied on the tribe’s own enrollment data, rather than population data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The HUD data showed the tribe had 883 citizens. The tribe argued it should have received $7.65 million dollars more based on its enrollment figure of more than 4,840.


The Treasury Department has said it used HUD data because it would correlate with the amount of money tribal governments have spent responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Tribal data doesn’t distinguish between members who live on and off reservations, the agency said.


The Treasury Department intends to start distributing the remaining $3.2 billion from a coronavirus relief package approved in March to tribes no later than Monday.


U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta held a hearing Thursday on the Prairie Band’s request to keep the Treasury Department from moving forward. He ruled later that he had no jurisdiction over the matter because Congress gave the Treasury secretary discretion in how to dole out the funding.


“The CARES Act thus contains no ‘statutory reference point’ by which to judge the secretary’s decision to use HUD’s population data set, as opposed to some other,” Mehta wrote.


The judge also faulted the tribe for filing its lawsuit more than a month after the Treasury Department said it would use HUD data following a request for tribes to submit enrollment figures.


Carol Heckman, an attorney for the Prairie Band, said the tribe doesn’t use the HUD database and did not immediately understand the Treasury Department’s methodology. She said reports by Harvard researchers who dug into the HUD data showed the tribe it was underrepresented.


Mehta is scheduled to hear arguments in a related case Friday. It is centered on whether Alaska Native corporations are eligible for a share of the $8 billion set aside for tribes in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that Congress approved in March.


Mehta earlier ruled to limit distribution to tribal governments while he decides the eligibility question.

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