Photo by Joshua Gerard Gargiulo, Cronkite News Tribal delegates speak before Congress.
Photo by Joshua Gerard Gargiulo, Cronkite News

The funds are part of an $8 billion pandemic relief package promised to the tribes in late March.

The U.S. Treasury Department must release $679 million in coronavirus relief funding for tribes that it intended to withhold while a court challenge over the agency’s initial round of payments to tribal governments played out in court, a federal judge ruled late Monday.

The funds are part of $8 billion set aside for tribes by Congress when they approved a federal rescue package in late March. The deadline to distribute the money was supposed to be April 26.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington, D.C., said the agency doesn’t have discretion to withhold the money that is part of a federal relief package that included $8 billion for tribes. He ordered the Treasury Department to disburse it among tribal governments by Wednesday.

“Continued delay in the face of an exceptional public health crisis is no longer acceptable,” Mehta said.

The relief package was approved in late March with a deadline for the funding to be distributed to tribes by April 26.

The payments were initially delayed as the Treasury Department considered how to do this, deciding to use federal tribal population data for the first $4.8 billion given in early May to 574 federally-recognized tribes. 

The Treasury Department said much of the remaining $3.2 billion went out on Friday.

Mehta’s ruling came in one of several cases filed by tribes, some of which have been consolidated.

Mehta said no court order prevents the Treasury Department from releasing the $679 million. He allowed the department to withhold $7.65 million that the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation of Kansas tribe alleges it was shortchanged in the initial distribution of funding.

Keith Harper, who is representing several tribes, is asking the Treasury Department instead to withhold only the amount in question for the Prairie Band.

Nevertheless, a federal judge denied the tribe’s request to halt further distribution of the funds, saying the Treasury Department has discretion in determining how to allocate the coronavirus relief money.

The Treasury Department said the $679 million withholding would cover the Kansas tribe if the tribe wins its case and any other tribal governments that might raise challenges. That amounts to the difference between relying on data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the enrollment figures submitted by tribes.

“It’s a means of ensuring that Treasury has actually determined an appropriate amount and paid an appropriate amount,” U.S. Department of Justice attorney Jason Lynch, representing the Treasury Department, said Monday during a court hearing in a related case.

Indian Country Today reports a federal judge decided the Treasury Department must release the funds to tribes.

“The tribes have only until the end of this year to figure out how to spend these funds, and they can’t even make decisions on planning on how to utilize these funds,” Harper said. “Every day that goes by is further difficulties for these tribal plaintiffs.”

Tribes renewed a request to force the Treasury Department to disburse the remaining money immediately.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.