U.S. Treasury to start distributing $4.8 billion in pandemic funds to tribal governments

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury Department will begin distributing $4.8 billion in pandemic-relief funds to Native American tribal governments in all U.S. states on Tuesday, the Treasury and Interior Departments said in a joint statement.

Payments would begin Tuesday to help the tribes respond to the novel coronavirus outbreak, based on population data in U.S. Census figures, the statement said, while payments based on employment and expenditure data would be made at a later date.

Amounts calculated for Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act regional and village corporations, for-profit businesses that serve tribal villages in Alaska, would be held back until pending litigation relating to their eligibility was resolved, they said.

The decision frees up about 60% of the $8 billion in funds earmarked for Native tribes in the CARES Act, after delays caused by a legal dispute among the nation’s native populations over who is entitled to the aid.

Some tribes in the lower 48 states had sued to say the Alaska tribal corporations were not eligible for the aid since they were not tribal governments.

The Treasury and Interior departments have decided to proceed with disbursing some of the aid while the litigation continues.

Native tribes have been seriously impacted by the outbreak, with the Navajo Nation, which resides in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, trailing only the hardest-hit states New Jersey and New York in terms of the highest infection rate, according to Bettina Ramon, with the People for the American Way think-tank.

Health disparities, higher rates of poverty and a lack of insurance make tribal groups especially vulnerable, she said, noting casinos, a big source of income in some Native communities, were also omitted from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Treasury would distribute the remaining 40% of the $8 billion based on the total number of persons employed by the Native tribes and any tribally-owned entity, the statement said, as well as the amount of higher expenses faced by the tribe in the fight against the virus.

Treasury would work with the tribes to confirm employment numbers and seek additional information regarding higher expenses due to the public health emergency.

The pending litigation had introduced additional uncertainty into the process of making payments to the tribes, but Treasury said it was working to “make payments of the remaining amounts as promptly as possible consistent with the Department’s obligation to ensure that allocations are made in a fair and appropriate manner.”

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Editing by Franklin Paul and Bernadette Baum)

White House to hold call with banks as hundreds struggle to access small business loans

By Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House was due to speak with banks on Tuesday, as the administration’s $350 billion program to support ailing businesses continued to confront hurdles, with some of the nation’s largest lenders sitting on the sidelines and others unable to access the system.

As of Tuesday, Citibank  said it was still not accepting loan applications under the program, which began on Friday, while Wells Fargo & Co , which has capped lending under the program at $10 billion, said it had yet to distribute any funds to clients.

The Small Business Administration (SBA), which is jointly administering the program with the U.S. Treasury Department, had not yet launched a promised online system for taking on lenders that have never previously registered with the agency, according to the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA).

“That’s an issue if you’re a non-SBA lender, which is more than half of the lenders out there,” said Paul Merski, an executive vice president at the ICBA.

He said lenders are also still waiting for the administration to produce a compliant loan authorization form which would help speed up the distribution of funds, although he said guidance issued by the Treasury late on Monday night had helped to address some other issues with the program.

A top White House economic adviser, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, said on Tuesday that $50 billion in loans had been originated. However, it remained unclear how much of that money has been distributed since paperwork issues are holding up disbursements at some banks, according to industry sources.

Representatives for the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration did not respond to a request for comment. On Monday, the agency defended its progress, saying the program was unprecedented and pointing out that billions in loans had been authorized by the SBA in a very short time.

Launched on Friday as part of a $2.3 trillion congressionally approved economic relief package to combat the disruption caused by the novel coronavirus, the program got off to a rocky start as the administration rushed to get funds out the door in days without establishing key terms and paperwork.

Speed is critical, since half of small businesses have less than a two-week cash capital buffer. But the resulting confusion, bottlenecks and technology glitches have sparked widespread frustrations among bankers and businesses alike and left the U.S. Treasury and the SBA scrambling to fix the problems on the fly.

“You couldn’t have scripted a better #trainwreck for our nations community banks and the small biz customers we serve!” Brad Bolton, president and chief executive of Community Spirit Bank in Alabama, tweeted on Monday night.

The SBA overnight authorized 30 loans out of hundreds Bank of the West has been trying to process, Cynthia Blankenship, who runs the lender’s operation in Grapevine, Texas, told Reuters.

“We are continuing to be inundated with requests,” she said, adding that many of those are from companies turned away by their big lenders, including Wells Fargo, which has said it is constrained by a regulatory cap on its balance sheet.

Multiple small business owners took to Twitter over the past 24 hours to flag a document they had received from Wells, one of the biggest small business lenders in the country, advising potential applicants to reach out to other banks “to improve your chances of receiving a loan before the funds run out.”

Prominent lawmakers including Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and Chris Van Hollen also jumped into the fray on Tuesday, raising worries that less savvy small businesses without existing bank lending relationships will be shut out of the program.

With banks and their trade groups warning that funds will run out way before the June 30 application deadline, and with worries over an unfair distribution of the cash, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said on Monday he hoped to quickly authorize a further $200 billion for the program.

Republican President Donald Trump was scheduled to talk with top executives of major banks, including JPMorgan & Co In  and Goldman Sachs Group Inc, and Independent Community Bankers of America members on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the program, according to industry sources.

“We’re calling to make the system more robust, and are supporting additional appropriations for this. … We want to make sure there’s a geographic dispersion to all areas of the program,” said the ICBA’s Merski.

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder; additional reporting by Imani Moise and Ann Saphir; Editing by Michelle Price, Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and six other countries imposed sanctions on Wednesday on 25 corporations, banks and people linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

The targets were announced by the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) nations – which also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on a Middle East trip to finalize details of an economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

All 25 targets were previously sanctioned by the United States.

“The TFTC’s action coincides with my trip to the Middle East, where I am meeting with my counterparts across the region to bolster the fight against terrorist financing,” Mnuchin said in the Treasury statement.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Mnuchin said the United States would increase economic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, making the pledge during a Middle East trip that includes visits to U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sanctions reimposed on Tehran by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 nuclear pact with Tehran have dried up Iranian oil revenues and cut Iranian banks’ ties to the financial world.

Twenty-one of the targets announced Wednesday comprised a vast network of businesses providing financial support to the Basij Resistance Force, the Treasury said.

It said shell companies and other measures were used to mask Basij ownership and control over multibillion-dollar business interests in Iran’s automotive, mining, metals, and banking industries, many of which have operate across the Middle East and Europe.

The four individuals targeted were Hezbollah-affiliated and help coordinate the group’s operations in Iraq, it said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump says he is withdrawing earlier North Korea-related sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands before their one-on-one chat during the second U.S.-North Korea summit at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday said he was ordering the withdrawal of recently announced North Korea-related sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department.

“It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large-scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea,” Trump said on Twitter. “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”

It was not immediately clear what sanctions Trump was referring to. There were no new U.S. sanctions on North Korea announced on Friday but on Thursday the United States blacklisted two Chinese shipping companies that it said helped North Korea evade sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders did not specify which sanctions Trump spoke of but said: “President Trump likes Chairman Kim (Jong Un) and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”

The sanctions on the Chinese shippers were the first since the second U.S.-North Korea summit broke down last month. Hours after the sanctions announcement, North Korea on Friday pulled out of a liaison office with the South, a major setback for Seoul.

North Korea said it was quitting the joint liaison office set up in September in the border city of Kaesong after a historic summit between leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in early last year.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; writing by David Alexander; editing by Tim Ahmann and Bill Trott)

U.S. imposes major sanctions on Russian oligarchs, officials

FILE PHOTO: Russian tycoon and President of RUSAL Oleg Deripaska listens during the "Regions in Transformation: Eurasia" event in Davos, Switzerland January 22, 2015. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich/File Photo

By Lesley Wroughton and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States imposed major sanctions on Friday against 24 Russians, striking at allies of President Vladimir Putin in one of Washington’s most aggressive moves to punish Moscow for what it called a range of “malign activity,” including alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

The action, taken under pressure from the U.S. Congress, freezes the U.S. assets of “oligarchs” such as aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska, a close associate of Putin, and lawmaker Suleiman Kerimov, whose family controls Russia’s largest gold producer, Polyus.

The sanctions are largely a reply to what U.S. intelligence agencies say was Russian interference in the presidential election, although the Treasury Department painted them as a response to a series of adversarial actions by Moscow.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been under fire for not taking strong action against Russia after a series of diplomatic disputes reminiscent of the Cold War era and the sanctions could complicate his hopes for good relations with Putin.

The sanctions are aimed at seven Russian oligarchs and 12 companies they own or control, plus 17 senior Russian government officials. They freeze the U.S. assets of the people and companies named and forbid Americans in general from doing business with them.

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said, however, Moscow’s contacts with the U.S. government would not be brought to an end by the sanctions. Russia denies interfering in the U.S. election.

They could hurt the Russian economy, especially the aluminum, financial and energy sectors, and are a clear message to Putin and his inner circle of U.S. displeasure.

In announcing the sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement, “The Russian government operates for the disproportionate benefit of oligarchs and government elites.”

He said Moscow “engages in a range of malign activity around the globe, including continuing to occupy Crimea and instigate violence in eastern Ukraine, supplying the Assad regime with material and weaponry as they bomb their own civilians, attempting to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities.”

Shares in Russian aluminum producer Rusal were down 2.2 percent on Moscow’s exchange after the company was named on the sanctions list.

Russian state companies under the U.S. sanctions will receive additional government support, Russian Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov said, according to Interfax.

MUELLER INVESTIGATION

U.S. intelligence agencies last year accused Russia of using hacking and disseminating false information and propaganda to disrupt the 2016 elections and eventually try to ensure Trump defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether Trump’s election campaign colluded with Russia, something that Trump denies. Mueller has indicted 13 Russians and three organizations in his probe.

Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former senior U.S. Treasury Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank, said the sanctions were significant, although there is more to do.

“I’m impressed by how aggressive this is,” she said. “I thought it would be serious and this is certainly a very serious statement of U.S. policy.

“I would hasten to say that Russia hawks may welcome this but wouldn’t find it satisfying. And by no means would this be the sum total of what the U.S. government should do to advance its concerns.”

Trump has faced fierce criticism – including from fellow Republicans – for doing too little to punish Russia for the election meddling, aggression in Ukraine, and support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.

He angered many members of Congress by failing for months to implement sanctions on Russia that lawmakers passed nearly unanimously last year.

But pressure for the United States to take action against Russia, especially from U.S. lawmakers, has been increasing.

Putin’s government has been blamed for the poisoning of a former Russian double agent living in Britain last month and the United States and several European states announced plans to expel more than 100 Russian diplomats in response.

In February, the White House blamed Russia for the international “NotPetya” cyber attack, which has been called the most destructive and costly in history.

On March 15, the Trump administration said it would impose sanctions on 19 people and five entities, including Russian intelligence services, for cyber attacks stretching back at least two years.

Friday’s sanctions were authorized by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, known as CAATSA, which Trump reluctantly signed into law in August.

Chris Painter, the former top cyber diplomat at the U.S. State Department, said the latest sanctions are unlikely to deter the Kremlin unless Trump formally condemns Putin.

Painter, who left government last year, criticized Trump’s rhetoric toward Putin – including a congratulatory call last month when Putin won another presidential term in a widely criticized election.

“We need the head of our country saying, ‘This is not going to happen,'” Painter said. “That’s a critical piece.”

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann and Susan Heavey; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Bill Trott)