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Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

A top Interior Department official is under investigation for allegations of ethics violations in her role in decision-making on the $8 billion allocated for tribes under the recent COVID-19 relief act. Officials are also looking into leaks of information from tribes’ applications for relief funding.

A few weeks ago, several tribes accused Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, Inupiaq, of having a conflict of interest.

Sweeney is a current shareholder and former vice president for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, an Alaska Native for-profit corporation with billions of dollars in annual revenue. At Interior, she took part in decision making that led to its decision that Alaska Native corporations are eligible for funding under the section of the relief act aimed at state governments and tribes.

Earlier, when Sweeney was accused of using her position to help Alaska Native corporations, the Interior Department said she was following the law.

"Assistant Secretary Sweeney is committed to supporting all American Indian and Alaska Natives, and to suggest she has personal motives or that she is attempting to divert funds away from American Indians is completely false. Her approach has always been focused on inclusiveness, transparency and partnerships," the agency said in a statement. "It is unfortunate that during a time of historic appropriations for the Native American community, some are seeking to divide the community and are suggesting we ignore the mandate of Congress and exclude eligible entities as defined by law.”

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The Interior Department was in the process of figuring out how to divvy up the money when tribal governments filed an injunction to halt disbursement. Following a court order to send money, but not all of it, to tribes, the department began sending checks to tribes. It is holding back 40 percent of the funding in case it is determined that money is to go to the corporations.

Monday, Inspector General for the Department of Interior Mark Lee Greenblatt wrote a letter to Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, vice chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs. Greenblatt said his office is working with the Treasury Department’s office of inspector general on an investigation on the two issues.

Udall had formally requested an investigation, as did the chairs of a U.S. House Committee and five subcommittees.

The relief law defined tribes by referencing a definition in the Indian Self Determination Act that includes Native corporations as Indian tribes. Corporations say there is no ambiguity: Alaska Native regional and village corporations are “tribes” under the law. The corporations note they are specifically included in the definition of tribes in the Self Determination Act, and were created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 to support Alaska Native communities and shareholders economically, culturally and socially. Thus, they contend, they qualify for the relief act funds.

But the Interior Department does not include the Native for-profit corporations on its list of federally recognized tribes. Under treaties and extensive case law, federally recognized tribes are sovereign governments with a government-to-government relationship with the federal government. The tribes argue the relief funding was intended for tribal governments carrying out essential COVID response activities, not Alaska Native businesses. They say other parts of the relief law address business losses such as any the corporations experienced. Some 20 tribes have joined the suit.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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