FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A federal judge has sided with the Treasury Department in a case that challenged the distribution of coronavirus relief aid to Native American governments.
Tribal governments had received $4.8 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act based on federal housing population data that some said was badly skewed.
Three tribes in Oklahoma, Florida and Kansas sued over the methodology that relied on population data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The tribes alleged they were shortchanged by millions because tribal enrollment figures were higher than those reflected in federal data.
The figure for the Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, for example, was zero in federal data.
The Treasury Department revised the methodology to correct the most substantial disparities after a federal appeals court said the methodology likely was arbitrary and capricious, and sent additional payments to some tribes.
The Shawnee Tribe was satisfied and dropped its legal challenge. The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians in Florida and the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas argued the new amounts didn’t make sense when broken down to a per-person figure and continued their fight in court.
U.S. District Court Judge Ahmit Mehta ruled Friday that the Treasury Department’s revised methodology was reasonable, “even if some tribes ended up worse off than if Treasury had simply used better data in 2020.”
Congress gave the department discretion in how to dole out the funding.
Carol Heckman, an attorney for the Prairie Band, said Friday the tribe hasn’t decided whether to appeal the decision. But she pointed to what she saw as a number of wins in the case.
Prairie Band received an additional $864,000 because of its legal pursuit, Heckman said. The case influenced the way the federal government distributed money to tribes under the American Rescue Plan Act by not relying on outdated HUD figures.
And, a federal appeals court ruled Mehta had to consider the tribes’ claims on the merits after initially ruling the Treasury Department’s methodology wasn’t subject to court review.
“On balance, it’s been very successful litigation despite this decision,” Heckman said. “I’m really kind of happy.”
Attorneys for the Miccosukee did not respond to email and phone requests for comment Friday. The tribe received an additional payment of nearly $825,000 because of the lawsuit.
The Shawnee Tribe received another $5.2 million.
It’s unclear which other tribes received additional payments last spring based on the revised methodology. The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
The agency had said it would look at the difference between the federal data and enrollment figures provided by tribes and rank them, so the top 15% of tribes would receive more money to correct the most substantial disparities.