Alaska Native corporations aren’t eligible to receive federal coronavirus relief funds designated for Native American and Alaska Native tribes, a federal district court has ruled.
The ruling Monday evening was accompanied by an injunction temporarily blocking the Trump administration from releasing such funds until further action settles the case.
The court ruling is a victory for some tribal governments — including several from Alaska — who had sued to stop the Treasury Department from giving money to the corporations that had been set aside for tribal governments as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The tribes have argued that Alaska Native corporations are eligible for other forms of coronavirus relief funds, such as those designed for businesses.
Alaska Native corporations, on the other hand — and Alaska’s congressional delegation — have argued that the corporations meet long-standing federal definitions of “Indian tribes” and therefore qualify to receive the relief funds.
The divide exploded into a public controversy earlier in April when Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat and the Senate minority leader, took to Twitter to accuse the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, Tara Sweeney, of “diverting funds” from tribes to corporations. Sweeney — a former top executive at Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, one of Alaska’s largest Native corporations — struck back, as did her supporters from Alaska’s business and political community.
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta appeared to agree with the tribal government plaintiffs, writing in a 34-page ruling that “For purposes of this preliminary injunction, the court is persuaded that, presently, no ANC satisfies the definition of ‘Tribal government’ under the CARES Act and therefore no ANC is eligible for any share of the $8 billion allocated by Congress for Tribal governments.”
But Mehta didn’t foreclose the possibility of Alaska Native corporations receiving funds in the future, noting explicitly that the order didn’t require the Treasury Department to give out the entire $8 billion to tribal governments — instead allowing it to withhold some funds pending further rulings.
That sets the stage for more legal battles, and the corporations said in a statement they will fight the decision.
“We still believe our position will find success in the court system, as the law is clear.”