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Judge halts virus relief funding for Alaska Native firms

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A federal judge has put the brakes on federal coronavirus relief funding for Alaska Native corporations while tribal nations appeal a ruling that deemed the corporations eligible.

The decision Tuesday stems from lawsuits that several tribes filed against the Treasury Department seeking to keep the corporations from getting a share of $8 billion that was set aside for tribes in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington, D.C., ruled against the tribes in late June, saying the corporations can be treated as tribal governments for limited purposes. But Mehta acknowledged he wrestled with the decision.

He granted a request from the tribal plaintiffs to halt funding to the corporations while his decision is appealed. If the tribes don’t challenge it by July 14 and seek a quick review from the appeals court, the stay will expire, he said.

“Because the question of statutory interpretation presented in this case is as complicated as it is consequential, it deserves an audience before a higher court while maintaining the status quo,” he wrote.

The Treasury Department hasn’t said how much it withheld for Alaska Native corporations, but it’s more than $162 million, according to court documents.

The corporations are unique to Alaska and own most of the Native land in the state under a 1971 settlement known as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The corporations were not party to the lawsuits regarding the relief funding but have said they support Alaska Natives economically, socially and culturally.

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