Osage Nation forms COVID Task Force to implement $28.6 million CARES Act money

Photo caption: The Superintendent's House and Executive Branch building (right) on the Osage Nation campus in Pawhuska on May 26, 2020. SHANNON SHAW DUTY/Osage News

The Osage Nation has received $28.6 million in federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. A COVID Task Force made up of ON employees has been appointed to administer the funds.

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear gave an update on the funding to the Congressional Appropriations Committee on May 13. He told the committee the funding has many restrictions. For example, CARES funding cannot be used to fill shortfalls in tribal revenue, nor can it be used for anything previously budgeted for in the 2020 fiscal year. The funding has to be used on new and necessary expenditures as related to the costs of the virus. The Nation received the award in late April.

“We have not spent one dime, these are federal funds and we’ve been advised by lawyers that the Department of Treasury will conduct audits of every tribe to make sure that the tribes are within these guidelines, and if we violate it there will be substantial penalties,” Standing Bear told the committee on May 13. “So, we’re treading very carefully and as we get information ... we’ll have more information on where we are.” 

The Trump administration awarded $8 billion in CARES funding to tribes in late March. The Indian Housing Block Grant distribution formula was used to determine how much each tribe received, according to an ON Executive Branch press release. The deadline to spend the funding is Dec. 30, 2020. All unspent funds will return to the federal government.

Assisting Standing Bear’s staff is David Mullon, former U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Chief Counsel. Terry Mason Moore, General Counsel to the Office of the Chiefs and Lacey Horn, who is a member of the U.S. Treasury Tribal Advisory Committee and is the former Treasurer of the Cherokee Nation.

Task Force

On May 18, Casey Johnson, the Nation’s Director of Operations, appointed a 16-person task force made up of ON employees to administer the CARES funding. James Weigant, ON Housing Director, is the task force coordinator.

“The task force is currently in communications with all Osage Nation Executive Departments, the Osage Nation Congress, the Osage Nation Judicial Branch and all Osage Nation Limited Liability Companies. The task force has asked all parties to submit their proposed CARES Act response,” Weigant said in the release.

“Proposals will be vetted by the task force and approved plans will receive legal review before becoming a formal part of the $28.6 million response. The Osage Nation has also received a number of other supplemental funding for COVID response from various Federal funding sources. The task force will help coordinate all awards into a cohesive package,” he said.

According to the release, several important projects have already been given legal approval and are moving forward. Funding for the Wah-Zha-Zhi Health Center, Bird Creek Farms, the Osage Nation Ranch, and advanced digital technology for distance learning and remote operations of the Osage Nation will receive funding. A direct grant program for Osage majority-owned (51% or more) businesses which can show loss of business due to the COVID response, according to the release.

“Implementation of the Osage Small Business Grant Program is still in development. The IT Department has proposed a major overhaul of the Osage Nation website that would include improvements to make applications for service much easier,” Weigant said in a May 22 email. “With this business grant program being a major part of the plan, we will work to include this program with the website upgrades. There is a survey that will be sent out to approximately 500 randomly sampled Osages concerning the small business loan program to verify the need.”

Since the CARES funding has to be used to prepare, prevent and respond to COVID, direct payments to tribal members do not comply with the strict requirements and are not allowed, Weigant said. The funding is also not allowable for out-of-state Osage organizations.

Members of the task force include Weigant, Jann Hayman, Jason George, Andrea Kemble, Daisy Spicer, Chris Standing Bear, Penny Bradford, Amy Easley, Justin Carr, Jaime Clark, Kirk Shaw, Kelsey Zaun, Tammy Leeper, Ed Zaun, Ashlee Walker and Susan Bayro.