Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President: Town Hall May 19, 2020

'Frustrating': Indian Country forced to wait again for coronavirus relief


Update (5/20):
Late on Tuesday evening, around 11pm Eastern, tribes began receiving emails containing information on how to connect to the CARES Act portal. The deadline to submit is 11:59pm Alaska time on May 26, 2020.

Tribal nations are still jumping through bureaucratic hoops in order to secure the full $8 billion in coronavirus relief that was promised by the Trump administration more than seven weeks ago.

Though many Indian nations are making use of $4.8 billion that has been provided so far, the rest of the money remains tied up in Washington, far from the communities that need it the most. As of Tuesday evening, the Department of the Treasury broke yet another pledge by failing to move forward with a process to distribute the rest.

"It kinda gets frustrating," President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation said of the seemingly endless wait for the money.

Nez participated in a teleconference with Treasury officials on Monday afternoon in which additional steps were outlined in order to secure the remaining $3.2 billion. He said tribes are being forced to repeat a process they already went through last month.

"We had to give a lot of information to Treasury," Nez said of certifications that were sent to the department, only for tribes to see the sensitive data leak into the public domain.

"They're asking almost the same questions again," Nez said during a virtual town hall on Tuesday afternoon.

#NAVAJOSTRONG - 511 DINÉ FAMILIES SERVED TODAY 05.15.20 Today, the Nez-Lizer team was hard at work once again as they...

Posted by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer on Friday, May 15, 2020

According to Treasury, tribes must submit additional employment and expenditure information in order to claim shares of money they were initially told would be released all at once. Similar data was requested under penalty of federal prosecution last month.

"That's where we're at, ladies and gentlemen," Nez said from the largest reservation in the United States.

"We don't know how much we're going to get," Nez added.

Nez isn't the only one in the dark. Several tribal leaders contacted by Indianz.Com on Tuesday afternoon said Treasury still hadn't reopened the online portal that will be needed to collect their employment and expenditure information.

Some in fact were still being forced to track down their shares of the initial $4.8 billion. Even though Treasury started distributing the funds on May 5, as President Donald Trump was on his way to Arizona for a roundtable with tribal leaders, at least one Indian nation didn't get paid until Monday.

"Took long enough!" a tribal official told Indianz.Com.

The official had to contact Treasury and other federal employees in order to find out where the tribe's share of money went. No explanation was provided for the delay, which the person believes was punitive, due to ongoing litigation connected to the coronavirus relief fund.

Treasury did not respond to another request for comment about the next steps in the process for distributing the $3.2 billion. But during the call on Monday, a high-ranking official from the department spoke of a deadline that has already slipped.

According to several participants, Daniel Kowalski, who serves as Counselor to Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin, told tribal leaders that the portal would be open by Tuesday night. He indicated that the website would be ready to go once the request for employment and expenditure information was approved by the White House, these people said.

But as of Tuesday evening, several tribal officials and advocates said Treasury hadn't provided them with a way to connect to the site.

In an sworn declaration submitted in federal court last Friday, Kowalski made other pledges about deadlines as well. Once the portal reopens, he said tribes would probably have seven business days to submit their employment and expenditure information to Treasury.

The department would then take another seven business days to determine how to distribute the $3.2 billion, Kowalski said in the affidavit. Assuming the schedule holds, the money could go out as soon as June 4.

"In determining the amount of time to allow the tribes to prepare and submit the data necessary for Treasury's allocation, Treasury balanced the potential burden of a relatively compressed timeframe to respond against tribes' immediate need for these funds during this public health emergency," Kowalski said.

The compressed schedule was provided after a federal judge raised concerns about another long wait for the funds. During a prior conference call organized by the White House, Kowalski had indicated it could take up to two months for the remaining $3.2 billion to go out.

A "months-long delay," Judge Amit P. Mehta wrote in May 11 decision, "will not be acceptable."

And just like tribal leaders, Mehta doesn't want to be kept in the dark. In an order on Tuesday, he told Secretary Mnuchin, the defendant in the case, to update the court on "efforts to disburse the remaining 40%" of coronavirus relief to tribes.

The status report is due Friday, ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

With the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, Congress authorized a total of $150 billion for tribes, states and local governments. States and local governments received $142 billion well before Indian Country saw a single penny from Treasury.

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