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Udall, Bernhardt, differ on pandemic effort in Indian Country

New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt have differing views on whether the Trump administration is living up to its commitment to Indian Country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Trump administration has failed to live up to its trust responsibility,” Udall told the Journal, mentioning the delay in the distribution of the $8 billion in funding Congress appropriated in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and “the release of sensitive tribal data by the executive branch that was meant to aid their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Bernhardt said it was the U.S. Treasury’s responsibility to distribute the $8 billion, which he called the “biggest investment for Indian Country in modern history.” He acknowledged the delay in funding, which was tied in court over the eligibility of Alaska Native corporations to receive aid.

He said 60% has now been distributed. Bernhardt expects the remaining 40% to be distributed “soon, but that depends on the Treasury Department.”

“Congress gave us about $450 million for Indian Country,” Bernhardt said of the Department of the Interior. “We got that out the door very quickly. We’ve also provided resources like command centers and decontamination facilities. On top of that, we’re intimately involved with FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency).”

He held meetings with the All Pueblo Council of Governors and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez on Wednesday about challenges they are facing in combating the coronavirus.

“We had some positive conversations,” Bernhardt said. “We’re expecting to continue the discussions in the next couple of weeks.”

But Udall, a Democrat, has called for inspector general investigations by the Treasury Department and Interior over the rollout of the $8 billion and the release of sensitive tribal information.

The data was submitted to the Treasury Department’s Coronavirus Relief Fund Web portal, and meant to be confidential, he said.

“I actually asked the inspector general to look into that breach,” Bernhardt said, “as soon as I saw the distribution numbers had been released. I take this very seriously. We have a trust responsibility.”

Udall has also asked for the inspector general to look into a potential conflict of interest by Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, who is from Alaska, in the distribution of CARES Act funds for Native American tribes.

Bernhardt defended Sweeney during his interview with the Journal.

“I have a great deal of confidence in her ethical compliance,” he said. “I’ve hired more ethics officials (for DOI) than the prior administration did in their entire tenure. I have dramatically improved the ethics compliance program. I’m confident in the culture of compliance that I have instituted within that department.”

Udall also questions why almost $50 million in funding approved by Congress for education in Indian Country from the CARES Act has not been distributed.

“Children in BIE (Bureau of Indian Education) schools have to have resources they need during this crisis,” the Democratic senator said.

Bernhardt said the money had to be spent wisely.

“We want to spend it effectively,” he said. “We want to make sure every dollar that is spent – that’s from the department – is spent on COVID-related items.”

He said there are times when proposals are brought to his department that need more refinement before funding is obligated.

“We are very committed to making sure that we have the resources to get these schools in a good place,” Bernhardt said. “I take nothing more seriously than our responsibility to educate these kids.”

Scott Turner: sturner@abqjournal.com

 

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