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Elim and Unalakleet File Joint Lawsuit Alleging USDA Sidestepped Tribal Consent in Broadband Project

The Native Village of Unalakleet and the Native Village of Elim have filed a joint lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its Rural Utilities Service (RUS) for allegedly violating federal regulations in the distribution of broadband internet funding.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, claims the RUS awarded nearly $70 million in grants to Interior Telephone Company and Mukluk Telephone Company for broadband projects in the Nome Census Area without obtaining the required Tribal Government Resolution of Consent. The plaintiffs argue this action ignored federal regulations designed to ensure tribal involvement in decisions affecting their lands. 

The lawsuit highlights the involvement of Kawerak, Inc., a nonprofit community services organization that supports Native Tribes within the Nome Census Area, including Unalakleet and Elim. According to the complaint, Interior Telephone Company and Mukluk Telephone Company solicited a letter of support from Kawerak for their investment plans in the region. However, the tribes argue that this letter was improperly used as a substitute for the mandatory Tribal Government Resolution of Consent. 

The requirement to obtain a Tribal Government Resolution of Consent is outlined in the USDA’s own ReConnect Program regulations concerning projects on tribal lands. Kawerak, while supportive of initiatives benefiting its member tribes, does not have the authority to issue such resolutions on behalf of sovereign tribes. 

The plaintiffs argue that the improper designation of their lands as “served” by these grants prevents them from receiving additional federal support for future broadband infrastructure. The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to void the grants and compel the USDA to recognize the affected tribal lands as eligible for future federal funding. 

The federal government is entitled to up to 60 days to provide an answer to the complaint. 

DC-based attorney Jason R. Scherr from Lewis & Bockius LLP is representing the villages in the lawsuit. He provided the following statement regarding the hopes for the outcome of the complaint:

“The federal government is investing millions of dollars into broadband infrastructure specifically to benefit Alaska Native communities. Applicants for loans and grants are required to obtain Resolutions of Tribal Consent as a condition to eligibility for federal funding. Through the Rural Utilities Service, Mr. Berke and USDA failed to require such resolutions. That failure disregarded the sovereign rights of Elim and Unalakleet to participate, through their own Tribal governments, in decisions about how these federal investments are made. The challenged grants should be canceled. Funds should, instead, be made available to applicants who abide by the regulations requiring Resolutions of Tribal Consent.”

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