Prairie Band lauds court decision noting ‘arbitrary’ methods for issuing COVID-19 aid

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TOPEKA — The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation welcomed a U.S. Court of Appeals decision in a challenge to the U.S. Department of Treasury’s method for distributing CARES Act assistance and the tribal chairman said the outcome could have ramifications for allocation of future federal funding.

A series of lawsuits, including one by the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation headquartered in Mayetta, led to the Court of Appeals’ declaration the Treasury Department engaged in an arbitrary and capricious process for calculating emergency aid. The Court of Appeals ordered the U.S. treasury secretary to provide further explanation of decisions regarding Prairie Band’s aid.

Prairie Band Chairman Joseph Rupnick said the Washington, D.C., appellate court’s ruling was “clear vindication” of the Prairie Band’s legal effort to compel accurate determinations of relief under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

He said the Treasury Department’s disregard of tribal enrollment data as a barometer for directing aid ignored fundamental principles of federal law and policy.

“This case is yet another example of tribes having to fight for what they’re rightly eligible for and only being recognized by the government after a lengthy legal struggle, which in this case required two separate trips to the Court of Appeals,” Rupnick said.

Tribes had taken legal action to contest the Treasury Department’s preference for determining CARES Act funding based on issuance of block grants through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Specifically, the agency anchored appropriations to Indian Housing Block Grant data.

The Prairie Band community hadn’t relied heavily on HUD assistance to provide housing, which meant the tribe was underfunded during the pandemic emergency.

“IHBG severely undercounts our communities and this impacts lifesaving funding,” Rupnick said.

In response to a Court of Appeals decision declaring the housing-grant approach unsuitable, the Treasury Department implemented a formula that resulted in funding disparities among tribes. The latest Court of Appeals decision discounted the Treasury Department’s alternative because the agency failed to establish a legitimate reason to treat “similar cases in a similar manner.”

The Court of Appeals’ opinion says the Shawnee Tribe, which was part of the combined appellate case, received during 2020 and 2021 a total of $5.3 million in federal relief dollars. The Shawnee membership stood at 3,021. Prairie Band received $3.3 million in that two-year period, but had an enrollment of 4,561 members.

Tribes have contended the federal government should focus on tribal enrollment for calculation of per capita aid, Rupnick said.

“This ruling is a clear vindication of Prairie Band’s effort to ensure that the federal government counts tribal citizens rather than relying on gerrymandered population metrics,” he said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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