Potawatomi Nation Sues Treasury For $8M Over COVID-19 Aid

By Diamond Naga Siu
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Law360 (January 5, 2021, 5:53 PM EST) -- The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation claimed Monday that it was stiffed $7.6 million in coronavirus relief funds, saying the U.S. Department of the Treasury used "arbitrary and capricious" tribal population data to apportion the $8 billion of CARES Act funds for tribes.

The Prairie Band said in its D.C. federal court filing that it has 4,561 enrolled citizens — a number it provided to Treasury at its request in April — but that the agency used a census-based metric of 883 citizens when it distributed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds in May.

The tribe said the census-based data is "skewed against tribal governments whose citizens refuse to take part in census data-gathering," which is voluntary and does not account for citizens who live off the reservation.

Carol Heckman of Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman LLP represents the tribe and told Law360 in a phone interview that the "very, very dire impacts" of the miscalculation meant the tribe could not help unemployed citizens who cannot pay for food, housing, medical issues or anything else.

"In addition to dealing with health problems, they had to close their casinos, which I must say is their main source of travel revenue, so hardship to the government and to the Prairie Band people has been very, very great," Heckman said Tuesday, highlighting how hard the tribe was hit by the pandemic.

"It's true for many of these tribes," she added.

The Prairie Band wants the agency to pay at least the $7.6 million it says it should have received, and requested declaratory judgment from the court.

The tribe previously sued Treasury over the same issue in June, but voluntarily dismissed the suit after the district court ruled it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case, saying the Treasury Department had discretion in how to allot funding.

Other tribes also brought cases over being shortchanged on CARES Act funding, including the Shawnee Tribe in June, which later appealed an unfavorable decision.

Heckman said the Prairie Band legal team had always planned to file again, but anticipated a successful appeal by the Shawnee Tribe.

"Like all federally recognized tribal nations, the Prairie Band has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and our tribal government has declared a disaster, imposed stay-at-home orders on our people, closed our enterprises, and provided direct services and support for our people under quarantine during the last four months," Prairie Band Chairperson Joseph Rupnick said in a statement Tuesday.

"This has resulted in tremendous hardship to our people, our families and the people we employ in our region in Kansas," he added.

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The Prairie Band is represented by Carol E. Heckman, James P. Blenk and Michael G. Rossetti of Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman LLP.

Counsel information for Treasury Secretary Steven Mcuchin was not immediately available Tuesday.

The case is Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation v. Steven T. Mnuchin, case number 1:21-cv-00012, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

--Editing by Philip Shea.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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Case Information

Case Title

PRAIRIE BAND POTAWATOMI NATION v. STEVEN T. MNUCHIN


Case Number

1:21-cv-00012

Court

District Of Columbia

Nature of Suit

Administrative Procedure Act/Review or Appeal of Agency Decision

Judge

Amit P. Mehta

Date Filed

January 04, 2021

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