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A federal judge has ruled in favor of a Maine tribe and several others by blocking the U.S. Department of Treasury from distributing federal coronavirus relief funds to a set of for-profit corporations created by tribes in Alaska.
However, it’s not clear when the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and other federally recognized tribes will receive a portion of the $8 billion set aside for tribal governments in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. The Maine tribe filed a suit with dozens of other tribes in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in mid-April asking the court to determine whether Alaska Native corporations are eligible for the money.
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The CARES Act money could be critical for the Houlton Band of Maliseets, who said the pandemic has imposed “substantial financial needs and hardships” on them, according to federal court documents. The tribes that filed the lawsuit argued that they would be eligible for less funding if the federal government also distributed part of the tribal governments’ allotment to the Alaska Native corporations.
The Houlton Band of Maliseets declared a public health emergency and closed two of its revenue-producing businesses — a campground and a roller-skating rink — shortly after Maine declared its own state of emergency in mid-March. The tribe has since opened a food pantry and incurred overtime costs for its essential and emergency operations staff.
Chief Clarissa Sabattis said last week in an email that the tribe has been working to obtain more personal protective equipment and has been delivering meals and other essential goods to elders and families. She did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The federal law passed at the end of March specifies that the money go to “the recognized governing body of an Indian Tribe.” The Interior Department, which oversees the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Alaska Native corporations had argued the CARES Act included corporations because they are also mentioned under the definition of “Indian Tribe” in the legislation.
But the tribes argued that distributing the funds to the Alaska Native corporations would mean their own relief would be “vastly reduced” because they have smaller populations, land bases and economies.
U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta agreed, and ordered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Monday to not distribute any of the money to the Alaska Native corporations.
“Reading the CARES Act to allow the Secretary to disburse Title V dollars to for-profit corporations does not jibe with the Title’s general purpose of funding the emergency needs of ‘governments,’” he wrote.
But he did not require the secretary to start distributing the money set aside for tribal governments, and it is possible the ruling could be appealed. The Department of the Treasury did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Mnuchin had said the department would not be able to distribute any of the money before Tuesday, after missing an initial Sunday deadline, according to court records. The department asked tribes and the Alaska Native corporations to submit information to the federal government on their spending, population, corporate shareholders and employees, but it hasn’t said how it will determine who gets what.
Indigenous tribes are particularly vulnerable to the virus because they have higher rates of health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma.
Houlton Pioneer Times writer Joe Cyr and the Associated Press contributed to this report.