Pigford: the unexamined Obama administration scandal—
Part 5 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.
‘It Just Went Wild’: Delton Wright, a Pine Bluff justice of the peace, recalled what happened after word of the settlement reached his impoverished region: “It just went wild. Some people took the money who didn’t even have a garden in the ground.” He added, “They didn’t make it hard at all, and that’s why people jumped on it.”
Mr. Wright, whose family owns farmland outside Pine Bluff, won his claim. So did two other applicants whose claims were virtually identical to his, with the same rounded handwriting, the same accusations of bias and similar descriptions of damages suffered.
But Mr. Cross, the Pine Bluff lawyer, has his suspicions. “It got out of control,” said Mr. Cross, adding that he had filed about 1,500 claims, including Mr. Wright’s and the apparent duplicates. He estimated that up to 15 percent of Arkansas claims were fraudulent. Claimants described how, at packed meetings, lawyers’ aides would fill out forms for them on the spot, sometimes supplying answers “to keep the line moving,” as one put it.
Even his own staff was complicit, Mr. Cross said; he discovered that four employees had been slipping unverified claims into stacks of papers that he signed. He did not inform the court monitor, he said, because “the damage was done.” A 300-member team from the Farm Service Agency reviewed claims before adjudicators rendered their final decisions. In recent interviews, 15 current and former Agriculture Department employees who reviewed or responded to claims said the loose conditions for payment had opened the floodgates to fraud.
“It was the craziest thing I have ever seen,” one former high-ranking department official said. “We had applications for kids who were 4 or 5 years old. We had cases where every single member of the family applied.” The official added, “You couldn’t have designed it worse if you had tried.”
Accusations of unfair treatment could be checked against department files if claimants had previously received loans. But four-fifths of successful claimants had never done so. For them, “there was no way to refute what they said,” said Sandy Grammer, a former program analyst from Indiana who reviewed claims for three years. “Basically, it was a rip-off of the American taxpayers.”
The true dimensions of the problem are impossible to gauge. The Agriculture Department insists that the names and addresses of claimants are protected under privacy provisions. But department data released in response to a Freedom of Information request by The Times are telling. The data cover 15,601 African-Americans who filed successful claims and were paid before 2009.
Agriculture Department reviewers found many suspicious claims for compensation, some from nursery-school-age children. In 16 ZIP codes in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and North Carolina, the number of successful claimants exceeded the total number of farms operated by people of any race in 1997, the year the lawsuit was filed. Those applicants received nearly $100 million.
In Maple Hill, a struggling town in southeastern North Carolina, the number of people paid was nearly four times the total number of farms. More than one in nine African-American adults there received checks. In Little Rock, Ark., a confidential list of payments shows, 10 members of one extended family collected a total of $500,000, and dozens of other successful claimants shared addresses, phone numbers or close family connections.
Thirty percent of all payments, totaling $290 million, went to predominantly urban counties — a phenomenon that supporters of the settlement say reflects black farmers’ migration during the 15 years covered by the lawsuit. Only 11 percent, or $107 million, went to what the Agriculture Department classifies as “completely rural” counties.
A fraud hot line to the Agriculture Department’s inspector general rang off the hook. The office referred 503 cases involving 2,089 individuals to the F.B.I. The F.B.I. opened 60 criminal investigations, a spokesman said, but prosecutors abandoned all but a few for reasons including a lack of evidence or proof of criminal intent. Former federal officials said the bar for a successful claim was so low that it was almost impossible to show criminality.
source: delton wright, othello cross, carl bond, paula casey,