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Federal judge temporarily halts Treasury from issuing COVID-19 emergency funds to Alaska Native corporations

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A federal judge Monday granted a temporary restraining order to halt the distribution of coronavirus relief payments to Alaska Native corporations. A number of tribes, including three in Alaska, have argued that the $8 billion allotment is not meant for the for-profit corporations.

U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta in Washington, D.C. issued the two-page ruling, for now halting the U.S. Treasury Department from issuing the money to the corporations until a future court order or a final decision is issued in the case.

The announcement came a day before Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin planned to begin disbursing the funds, approved by Congress under last month’s $2 trillion bill to combat economic fallout from the coronavirus. Mnuchin had announced that Alaska Native corporations are eligible to receive the funds along with tribes.

Mnuchin cannot disburse the funds “to any Alaska Native regional corporation or Alaska Native village corporation," said Mehta in his temporary order.

The ANCSA Regional Association and Alaska Native Village Corporation Association said they were disappointed in the decision.

It will mean delayed resources and economic assistance for Alaska Natives, they said in a statement.

“We still believe our position will find success in the court system, as the law is clear,” they said.

The battle over the funds exploded in mid-April, at one point involving a dispute between Sen. Chuck Schumer and Alaska’s Congressional delegation. Groups representing Alaska Native corporations and tribal organizations have joined the case as friends of the court.

Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan each said on Monday they had not read the ruling but were disappointed by it.

“If this delays getting needed resources out to some of our most remote communities, that’s going to be a shame,” Sullivan said during Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Monday night COVID-19 briefing.

Both senators said they had intended Alaska Native Corporations to be included in the definition of tribes when they were writing the CARES Act. Sullivan said the bill was explicitly written to incorporate the definition used by a 1975 law that has been unchallenged in court.

“It’s a 40-year-old-plus definition of who and what constitutes tribes in America, and it includes Alaska Native regional and village corporations. It’s not controversial,” he said.

Three tribes from Alaska, the Akiak Native Community, Asa’carsarmiut Tribe in Mountain Village and Aleut Community of St. Paul Island in Alaska, filed the lawsuit earlier this month alongside Lower 48 tribes.

The tribes have argued that the corporations do not meet the definition of “Indian tribe” in the legislation.

The Treasury Department has countered that Native corporations are treated as tribal governments under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the 1975 act referenced by Sullivan. That position relies primarily on a Bureau of Indian Affairs interpretation that was upheld as reasonable by the Ninth Circuit over 30 years ago, Mehta said.

Mehta did not close the door entirely on the Alaska Native corporations receiving some of the aid.

“Because the court finds that plaintiffs have made a clear showing that they are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that they are likely to succeed on the merits, and the balance of the equities and the public interest favor an injunction, the court grants plaintiffs’ motions— but only in part,” the opinion said.

“The court will preliminarily enjoin the secretary from disbursing Title V funds to any (Alaska Native corporation), but will not direct him at this time to disburse the entire $8 billion in emergency relief to plaintiffs and other federally recognized tribes,” the opinion said.

Congress in 1971 approved legislation leading to the creation of 13 Alaska Native regional corporations and about 200 village corporations. Alaska is home to 229 tribal governments, more than one-third of the U.S. total.

Daily News reporter James Brooks in Juneau contributed.

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