Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in dispute with U.S. Treasury over $7.5M in CARES Act money

Titus Wu
Topeka Capital-Journal
Steven Mnuchin was U.S. Treasury secretary under President Donald Trump when the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation filed a lawsuit against his department.

A Kansas Native American tribe is appealing to President Joe Biden's administration for $7.5 million from the first round of coronavirus relief funding under the CARES Act.

The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, which is based near Mayetta, had filed a lawsuit last June against the U.S. Treasury Department, claiming the department under former President Donald Trump had used improper data to allocate relief money.

The federal government then was using an Indian Housing Block Grant data to allocate and divide the approximately $8 billion set aside for tribes among them. But the data was flawed and undercounted populations, according to multiple lawsuits, and the Treasury ignored data tribes submitted themselves.

The Prairie Band Nation said that mistake meant $7.5 million lost for them. Other tribes in the nation, such as Oklahoma's Shawnee Tribe, said that mistake meant it would receive virtually nothing, as the Shawnee didn't participate in the IHBG program. 

"The Trump Treasury Department used a wholly inappropriate housing-based formula that cost us and other tribes millions of dollars of needed relief," said Prairie Band Nation Chairman Joseph Rupnick.

Their lawsuit said it was an "arbitrary and capricious decision to ignore tribal enrollment" when using IHBG data.

Steven Mnuchin, then-secretary of the U.S. Treasury, pushed back.

"No methodology can predict, with certainty, any given tribe's increased expenditures stemming from COVID-19, and Treasury's methodology is not 'arbitrary and capricious' simply because plaintiff believes it has a marginally superior alternative," Mnuchin had said.

Prairie Band, Shawnee Tribe and Florida's Miccosukee Tribe sought to pause the distribution of the remaining $3 billion in CARES money until the issue is fixed and a proper allocation method was implemented.

In January, the federal Court of Appeals in D.C. sided with the tribes, ordering the Treasury to set aside money as the case is pending.

The court opinion said the plaintiff is “likely to succeed in its claim that the IHBG data is not a suitable proxy for 'increased expenditures'" and that “the Secretary is distributing congressionally appropriated funds in violation of the authorizing statute.”

While the case drags through the courts, Biden's Treasury Department last month announced a new Tribal consultation, or a process to hear from tribal leaders, to develop a new funding formula for coronavirus relief funding.

But the Prairie Band Nation saw that as "an effort to void the case and deny any requested relief."

A request for comment from the Treasury wasn't returned by deadline. Inquiries to the Nation to further explain its position weren't returned.

The longer the wait for a final decision, the more tribal members are hurt as they wait on proper relief funding, tribes have said.

"I am extremely disappointed that the federal government is going to such lengths to deny Tribal governments their fair share of CARES funding," Rupnick said. "Congress provided CARES Act dollars nearly a year ago to help our tribes and our people respond to the Coronavirus... (and) I ask the Biden Administration to re-visit this decision and immediately provide us with fair treatment and fair payment."