The United State House of Representatives voted on November 30, 2010, to pay $1.2 billion to settle the case of Pigford v. Glickman, a class-action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The suit alleged that government agents racially discriminated against farm loans and assistance to black farmers between 1983 and 1997. The lawsuit ended when the United States government agreed to pay $50,000.00 to each African American farmer who attempted to get USDA help but failed.
The lawsuit was filed by Timothy Pigford in 1997, and he was joined by 400 additional African American farmer plaintiffs in the suit against Dan Glickman, the Secretary of Agriculture, the nominal defendant. The plaintiffs alleged that the USDA treated black farmers unfairly when decisions were made about allocating price support loans, disaster payments, “farm ownership” loans, and operating loans. They also alleged that the USDA failed to process subsequent complaints about racial discrimination.
After Pigford filed the lawsuit, he requested blanket mediation for about 2,000 farmers who might have been discriminated against. The U.S. Department of Justice opposed the mediation because they thought each case should be investigated separately. The presiding judge however certified as a class all black farmers who filed discrimination complaints against the USDA between 1983 and 1997.
The case was settled in 1999, decreeing that all African American farmers would be paid $50,000 (Track A) or they could seek a larger payment by presenting a greater amount of evidence (Track B). The claimants were given 180 days from the consent decree to file, but late claims were accepted for an additional year – if there were extraordinary circumstances that prevented filing on time.
Pigford thought that about 2,000 farmers would be affected, but 22,505 people applied on Track A with 200 applied on Track B. In addition to those that were heard and decided upon, there were 70,000 more petitions that were filed late and not allowed to proceed. The last number I read for claimants is 85,000, but the number is still climbing because a provision in the 2008 farm bill made it possible for a re-hearing for any claimant with a claim denied without a decision based on its merits.
Another $20.5 billion class action lawsuit was filed in 2004 by the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) against the USDA alleging racially discriminatory practices between 1997 and 2004. BFAA failed to show it had standing to bring the suit; therefore, the lawsuit was dismissed.
Iowa Congressman Steve King (R-IA-5), a member of both the House Agriculture and the House Judiciary Committees, sent a letter on September 24, 2010, to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to request a meeting in which to discuss allegations of major fraud in the disbursement of Pigford settlement money. He wrote, “There is a growing firestorm over the allegations of massive fraud in the Pigford settlement. … According to sworn testimony by John Boyd, President of the National Black Farmers Association, there are 18,000 black farmers. They could not all have been victims of discrimination. To date, there have been over 94,000 claims made. These numbers speak to massive fraud, meaning that American taxpayers are on the hook for what Pigford judge Paul Friedman called `forty acres and a mule.’
“It is common practice for Secretaries of Agriculture to sit down with members of the Agriculture Committee. It is uncommon for the topic of conversation to be as urgent and expensive as Pigford, with a price tag of $2.3 billion. Secretary Vilsack has an obligation to the American taxpayers to cooperate with an investigation of Pigford fraud.
“The Senate may be poised to pass the Obama administration’s request for additional Pigford funding. Pigford payouts must be stopped until Congress and the USDA can conduct a thorough investigation.”
On September 29, 2010, Congressman King and two other GOP House members called on the Justice Department to investigate the claims to ensure that they were legitimate. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) read from a letter written by Ed Schafer, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s GOP predecessor: “I urge that our government step back and institute a procedure to properly investigate each claim to see if it is appropriate or not. The allegations of fraud and abuse must be addressed if we are going to assure our citizens that their government is pursuing equal justice for all.”
Vilsack reportedly said that the “discrimination is well-documented, the courts have affirmed this discrimination, and Congress has twice acknowledged the need to settle with those who have suffered from this discrimination.”
The thorough investigation apparently did not take place yet. After the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill,
Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) likened the black farmers program to “modern-day reparations” for African Americans. He joined Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) in arguing that the claims process is rife with fraud
Black politicians are quick to say that Pigford is not about reparations – the act of compensating for wrong or injury done such as payments made by a defeated country for the devastation of territory during war - and yet they have not explained how there could be only 18,000 black farmers but 94,000 people claiming to be injured. How could a small settlement mushroom into a billion-dollar affair? I don’t mind using taxpayer funds to pay those who were truly discriminated against. I do object to my money being used to pay fraudulent claims. This whole affair smells to me like Obama and his kind are redistributing more money. I hope that the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives will investigate how such a fraud could take place and bring any guilty parties to justice. There is no conflict between making sure that the claims are legitimate and offering payments. It is the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and the court to make sure that the money does not go to people who are not entitled to it.
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