Pigford: the unexamined Obama administration sc
Part 6 of 7
The underreported scandal referenced is generally identified as “Pigford.” Pigford’s germination occurred in 1997 as a lawsuit (Pigford vs. Glickman) alleging that 91 African-American farmers were unfairly denied loans by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) due to racial discrimination which prevented the complainants from farming. In 1999, the black farmers won their case.
Lawmakers Turn Up the Heat; Some 66,000 claims poured in after the 1999 deadline. Noting that the government had given “extensive” notice, Judge Friedman ruled the door closed to late filers. “That is simply how class actions work,” he wrote. But it was not how politics worked. The next nine years brought a concerted effort to allow the late filers to seek awards
President George W. Bush was unreceptive to farmers’ repeated protests. But Congress was not: legislators from both parties, including Mr. Obama as a senator in 2007, sponsored bills to grant the late filers relief.
Mr. Boyd said Mr. Obama’s support led him to throw the backing of his 109,000-member black farmers’ association behind the Obama presidential primary campaign. Hilary Shelton, the N.A.A.C.P.’s chief lobbyist, said Mr. Obama’s stance helped establish him as a defender of the concerns of rural African-American communities.
Mr. King said, “Never underestimate the fear of being called a racist.”
Congress finally inserted a provision in the 2008 farm bill allowing late filers to bring new lawsuits, with their claims to be decided by the same standard of evidence as before. The bill also declared a sense of Congress that minority farmers’ bias claims and lawsuits should be quickly and justly resolved.
Congress overrode a veto by Mr. Bush, who objected to other provisions in the bill. But as Mr. Bush left Washington, Congress had appropriated only $100 million for compensation, hardly enough to pay for processing claims. Within months of taking office, President Obama promised to seek an additional $1.15 billion. In November 2010, Congress approved the funds. To protect against fraud, legislators ordered the Government Accountability Office and the Agriculture Department’s inspector general to audit the payment process.
But simultaneously, the Agriculture Department abandoned the costly and burdensome review process it had applied to earlier claims. As a result, according to internal government memos, the percentage of successful claims is expected to exceed that in the original 1999 settlement. More than 40,000 claims have been filed and are under review.
Few Claims, Big Payout: The Obama administration’s efforts to compensate African-American farmers intensified pressure from members of Congress and lobbyists to settle those cases as well. The Native-American case was clearly problematic for the government. The federal judge overseeing the case, Emmet G. Sullivan, had already certified the plaintiffs as a class, although only to seek changes in government practices and policies. He postponed a decision on whether they could seek monetary damages as a class.
Depositions had revealed many of the individual farmers’ complaints to be shaky. And federal judges had already scornfully rejected the methodology of the plaintiffs’ expert, a former Agriculture Department official named Patrick O’Brien, in the women’s case. University of California, Berkeley, had produced a 340-page report stating that Mr. O’Brien’s conclusions were based “in a counter-factual world” and that Native Americans had generally fared as well as white male farmers.
Professor Rausser was astounded when, with both sides gearing up for trial in late 2009, the government began settlement negotiations. “If they had gone to trial, the government would have prevailed,” he said. “It was just a joke,” he added. “I was so disgusted. It was simply buying the support of the Native-Americans.”
Agriculture officials predicted that only 5,300 Native Americans were likely to file claims. The plaintiffs’ lawyers, whose fees were to be based on a percentage of the settlement, estimated up to 19,000 claims. Only 4,400 people filed claims, with 3,600 winning compensation at a cost of roughly $300 million. That left $460 million unspent — of which roughly $400 million under the terms of the settlement must be given to nonprofit groups that aid Native American farmers.
The remaining $60.8 million will go to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, led by the Washington firm Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll. In court papers, the firm argued that the size of the payment was justified partly by the fact that the settlement nearly equaled the maximum estimate of economic damages. Joseph M. Sellers, the lead counsel, acknowledged the unspent amount was unexpectedly big. But “absent a court order,” he said, “we don’t intend to return it.
source: judge friedman, hilary shelton, naacp, 2008 farm bill, rose racine, gordon rausser, univ berkley, joseph seller.