Tyler Fish, a senior policy advisor and tribal liaison to President Donald Trump, addresses the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., on February 11, 2020. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

'Broken promises': Tribes decry leak of private data from $8 billion coronavirus relief fund

With additional reporting by Kevin Abourezk.

One tribal leader is "out for blood." Another calls it a "MAJOR breach" of the federal government's trust and treaty responsibilities.

A third compares it to a long history of "broken promises" by the United States. One believes it will lead to "lasting impact and damage" to Indian Country.

As tribal leaders and their citizens work day and night to protect their vulnerable communities from the coronavirus, they are enduring yet another shock to their system. After spending an entire week battling the Trump administration over an $8 billion COVID-19 relief fund, they discovered that their own government, the one that has charged itself with moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust, engaged in such shoddy document handling practices that their sensitive data, containing information about their people and their finances, landed in the hands of outsiders on Friday.

The serious breach, fresh off the bruising policy fight that has landed in the pages of national news outlets and has attracted the interest of powerful members of Congress -- some of them with strong connections to the White House -- has been such a jolt that many tribal leaders are still struggling to understand how it might have happened in the first place.

And, perhaps just as importantly, why.

"I don't know if that's a way of somebody trying to get back at the tribes or what," said Chairman Roger Trudell of the Santee Sioux Nation. The tribe's private information, which had to be submitted under threat of federal prosecution, was among those exposed by the Trump administration.

"It's hard to tell right now," Trudell told Indianz.Com on Saturday.

With tribes demanding investigations and weighing legal action, including a potential class action, the leak comes after nearly every Indian nation in the lower 48 expressed a lack of confidence in the government official who is supposed to prevent these kinds of intrusions. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney has taken a prominent role in decisions affecting the $8 billion coronavirus relief fund, so much so that the Department of the Interior admitted that her agency had its eyes all over the information that got out.

“In our consultation efforts with the Department of the Treasury regarding CARES Act funding, we have been asked to verify for accuracy some of the non-financial information submitted by tribes to Treasury, and we have not been provided any confidential banking information," a spokesperson said in a statement. When asked by Indianz.Com on Saturday whether an investigation was underway into the breach, the spokesperson declined to answer.

But Sweeney and her staff aren't the only ones with direct ties to the leak. The White House also had its hands on the data, according to information obtained by Indianz.Com during an investigation of the mishap.

In fact, a key official at the White House was among the first people who received the tribal CARES Act data that got out.

Tyler Fish, a senior policy advisor and tribal liaison at the White House, and Doug Hoelscher, a deputy assistant to President Donald Trump and director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, are seen on the steps of the U.S. Capitol following an event for missing and murdered Indigenous women on September 24, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

On Friday morning, a mere three minutes after the Department of the Treasury generated a document containing sensitive information of nearly 700 tribes and Native entities, it was emailed to Tyler Fish, the senior policy advisor and tribal liaison to President Donald Trump.

Fish, who is of Muscogee (Creek) and Cherokee ancestry, has positioned himself as a key player and eager promoter of the Trump administration's coronavirus response efforts. During a conference call last Thursday with tribal leaders, he praised the "positive results" being seen as a result of those measures, according to participants, even though the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise across Indian Country, with some communities experiencing a disproportionate impact from the deadly disease.

But while Interior and Treasury can claim a direct role in the handling of the $8 billion, the reasons for the White House's need to receive private tribal information are less clear. The two agencies are required by the bipartisan Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, to work together on the fund.

The law doesn't say anything about the White House. Fish, who is technically employed by Interior and is only on a government detail to the Executive Office of the President, did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend.

A spokesperson for the White House, however, said Fish received the sensitive data as part of the Trump administration's "all-of-government approach" to the health pandemic.

“The Coronavirus response is an all-of-government approach, which includes the White House tribal liaison’s efforts to ensure timely guidance for tribal leaders to best support their needs in this unprecedented times, including ensuring followup with tribal leaders to submit information before key deadlines," the spokesperson told Indianz.Com on Sunday.

Daniel Kowalski, who serves as the counselor to Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin and who co-hosted two COVID-19 tribal consultation calls along with Sweeney, did not provide comment either. Though he attempted to connect Indianz.Com with his department's media team, none of them have explained what the agency was doing to address, investigate or respond to the data dump.

Tribal leaders are incensed. Some struggled with the CARES Act portal set up by Treasury but persevered with the hope of securing a share of an $8 billion fund promised to help their governments recover from the social, cultural, economic and other impacts of the global health pandemic.

“Tribes do not like to share their data but in order to access these critical funds to protect the health and safety of our members under the CARES Act, we did," Chairman Coly Brown of the Winnebago Tribe said in a statement to Indianz.Com on Saturday. "Now, our worst fears are confirmed and there has been a leak of that data. I worry about the lasting impact and damage to our Tribal Nations by this leak."

"I echo the call for an immediate investigation into the matter," Brown added.

For Chairman Christine Sage of the Southern Ute Tribe, the leak was so egregious that she had to inform her people about it. She noted that critical information, including bank account numbers, was submitted to the "secure" portal set up by Treasury.

"The history of relations between the United States and tribal nations is replete with broken promises," Sage said on Saturday. "The unlawful release of information is evidence that those broken promises by the federal government continue to this day."

Posted by Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska on Thursday, April 16, 2020
Winnebago Tribe: COVID-19 Update April 16, 2020

Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of the Cherokee Nation highlighted the double blow the breach represents to Indian County. After leading the charge against the inclusion of Alaska Native corporations in the $8 billion, which he likened to a "robbery happening in broad daylight", his tribe's data was among those exposed, only a day after it had been submitted to the CARES Act portal.

"Last week it was the Alaska corporate raid on the funds," Hoskin said on social media on Saturday. "Now it appears the feds breached the trust of tribes with a disclosure of tribal data."

"Outrageous," said Hoskin, who is the leader of one of the two largest in the United States

Indian law experts contacted by Indianz.Com said the breach raises significant liability issues for the Trump administration, especially Secretary Mnuchin, who is already being sued by six tribes for his handling of the $8 billion fund. They believe it gives the plaintiffs in the case, which seeks a judgment barring Alaska Native for-profit entities from receiving a share of the money, some ammunition that hadn't been available when the complaint was filed Thursday evening, just hours before the leak took place.

The mere existence of the leaked data, which contains information on population, land base, employees and expenditures for nearly 700 tribes and Native entities, has generated intense interest and heated discussion in Indian law and policy circles. With more lawsuits in development, including one that is expected to be filed as soon as Monday, it's only a matter of time before the leaked document shows up in court, these practitioners said.

Tribal leaders and advocates alike also noted the deep inequities of the incident. In order to seek a share of the $8 billion fund, Indian nations were warned they could face criminal prosecution for uploading "false" information to the CARES Act portal. A similar threat was not made of states and local governments, who are in line for far more coronavirus relief money than tribes.

Now it turns out that someone, or perhaps multiple people within the government, and maybe even those outside of it, are the ones who might face legal problems in connection with the leak.

"This release of sensitive information comes at a time when tribal governments are in dire need of resources to respond to and recover from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic," the National Congress of American Indians said in a statement on Saturday.

"NCAI demands a full and swift investigation into the source of the data breach," the largest inter-tribal organization in the U.S. said.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Alaska Native corporations outpace tribes in race for $8 billion in coronavirus relief (April 17, 2020)
'A robbery happening in broad daylight': Indian Country in revolt over $8 billion coronavirus fund (April 16, 2020)
Family holds onto hope while mother fights for her life after being diagnosed with COVID-19 (April 16, 2020)
Coronavirus takes higher toll on Native Americans in hard hit region (April 15, 2020)
Alaska Native corporations in line for billions in coronavirus relief promised to tribes (April 14, 2020)
'We keep getting left out': Tribal gaming remains locked out of $349 billion coronavirus relief program (April 14, 2020)
Native Sun News Today Editorial: Publishing during a time of a pandemic (April 14, 2020)
Tribes rush to respond to new coronavirus emergency created by Trump administration (April 13, 2020)
Arne Vainio: Zoongide'iwin is the Ojibwe word for courage (April 13, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: Oklahomans will overcome the #Coronavirus (April 13, 2020)
Cronkite News: Businesses running out of time with #Coronavirus relief program (April 13, 2020)
VIDEO: Interview with Jonathan Nez of Navajo Nation and Chuck Hoskin Jr. of Cherokee Nation (April 9, 2020)
COVID-19 and American Racism: A Mohawk Perspective (April 9, 2020)
'At this rate, the entire tribe will be extinct': Zuni Pueblo sees COVID-19 cases double as first death is confirmed (April 8, 2020)
Rapid coronavirus tests finally coming to Indian Country as cases continue to rise (April 7, 2020)
Arne Vainio: 'A great sickness has been visited upon us as human beings' (April 7, 2020)
Montana Free Press: Governor OKs Keystone XL construction despite #Coronavirus threat (April 7, 2020)
Cronkite News: Tribal response to 2020 Census lags far behind rest of nation amid #COVID19 (April 6, 2020)
Cronkite News: 'Overwhelming' demand on first day of $349 billion #Coronavirus program (April 6, 2020)
'We need clarification now': Indian gaming industry being shut out of coronavirus relief program (April 3, 2020)
Cronkite News: Trump administration finally closes Grand Canyon after weeks of #COVID19 complaints (April 2, 2020)
'We need the money right now': Tribes await billions of dollars in coronavirus relief (April 1, 2020)
Chuck Hoskin: In times of need, the Cherokee Nation does not stand down (April 1, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: More #Coronavirus help is coming to Indian Country (April 1, 2020)
Rep. Markwayne Mullin: The CARES Act brings #Coronavirus relief for tribes (April 1, 2020)
Cronkite News: Lawakers join Navajo Nation in seeking closure of Grand Canyon due to #Coronavirus (April 1, 2020)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention faulted for delay in Indian Country coronavirus funds (March 31, 2020)
Cronkite News: As COVID-19 cases rise, so do hospital worries about equipment (March 31, 2020)
'We're building faith': Social Distance Powwow brings Indian Country together despite coronavirus (March 30, 2020)
Supreme Court churns along with Indian Country case amid coronavirus crisis (March 30, 2020)
Tim Giago: World War II and coronavirus pandemic have similarities (March 30, 2020)
Cronkite News: $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill includes $10 billion for Indian Country (March 30, 2020)
Montana Free Press: Glacier National Park closes over coronavirus concerns (March 30, 2020)
Shane Morigeau: We should do more to protect Montanans (March 27, 2020)
'We were asking for a lot more': Lawmakers fought hard for Indian Country coronavirus relief funds (March 26, 2020)
Coronavirus relief coming to Indian Country with passage of bipartisan legislation (March 26, 2020)
Tribes face great need and don't have enough resources to respond to the coronavirus pandemic (March 26, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: Fighting an invisible enemy in the #Coronavirus (March 25, 2020)
Rep. Markwayne Mullin: Resources for those impacted by #COVID19 (March 25, 2020)
Indian Health Service works to distribute more coronavirus funding to tribes as cases continue to grow (March 24, 2020)
Kevin Abourezk: Indian Country can't be left behind in coronavirus crisis (March 24, 2020)
Cronkite News: Republicans and Democrats feud over #coronavirus stimulus (March 24, 2020)
Urban Indian couple helps community amid coronavirus crisis (March 23, 2020)
Trump administration moves slowly on coronavirus funding for Indian Country (March 23, 2020)
PHOTOS: Lakota man helps fight the coronavirus (March 22, 2020
Montana Free Press: Neighboring counties ask Yellowstone National Park to close (March 23, 2020)
Chuck Hoskin: Safety and health are priority for Cherokee Nation (March 20, 2020)
'Lives are at risk': Coronavirus cases continue to grow in Indian Country as tribes push for action in Washington (March 19, 2020)
COVID-19 in Indian Country: Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) goes into self-quarantine (March 19, 2020)
COVID-19 in Indian Country: Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) goes into self-quarantine (March 19, 2020)
Doug George-Kanentiio: How the Mohawks responded to historical plagues (March 19, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: Flatten the #Coronavirus curve (March 19, 2020)
Rep. Markwayne Mullin: Do your part to flatten the #COVID19 curve (March 19, 2020)
Cronkite News: COVID-19 relief bill clears Congress as lawmakers prepare new package (March 19, 2020)
David Korten: Why coronavirus is humanity's wakeup call (March 19, 2020)
Indian Country plunges into uncertainty as coronavirus reaches their communities (March 18, 2020)
'The fight is here and now': Sacred site debate returns to nation's capital amid familiar challenges (March 12, 2020)
'We are staying on top of it': Oglala Sioux Tribe declares coronavirus emergency (March 11, 2020)
Tribes test Trump administration's commitment with coronavirus crisis (March 9, 2020)
United South and Eastern Tribes cancel D.C. meeting over coronavirus concerns (March 9, 2020)
Indian Country Today: Some say go while others say no after COVID-19 disruption (March 6, 2020)
NIGA keeps close watch on coronavirus ahead of annual convention (March 6, 2020)
Indian Health Service nominee in limbo amid another high-profile crisis (March 5, 2020)
Umatilla Tribes reopen casino after addressing coronavirus (March 5, 2020)
Indian Country Today: Warnings for tribes as coronavirus spreads (March 3, 2020)
Umatilla Tribes shut down casino and takes precautions as coronavirus hits Indian Country (March 2, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: Ready to combat coronavirus (February 19, 2020)
Indian Country Today: Risk from virus called 'very low' by health officials (January 29, 2020)
Trending in News
More Headlines