Pigford: the unexamined Obama administration scandal—
Part 7 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.
‘Divine Intervention’: Judge Robertson had refused to certify either group as a class. The United States Court of Appeals had upheld him, stating in 2006 that the Hispanic plaintiffs had been denied loans “for a variety of reasons, including inadequate farm plans and lack of funds.” Nor had female farmers proved a pattern of bias, the court found.
The Justice Department’s lawyers had definitively ruled out any group-style settlement. “Some of these folks have never made a loan payment in their entire history with U.S.D.A.,” Lisa A. Olson, the lead government litigator against the 81 Hispanic plaintiffs, told Judge Robertson in August 2009. “There may even be folks who are under criminal investigation.”
In a letter to Mr. Obama in June 2009, the senators noted that black farmers stood to receive $2.25 billion in compensation, but that Hispanic farmers, who alleged the same kind of discrimination, had gotten nothing. Should that continue, Mr. Menendez wrote that September, “Hispanic farmers and ranchers, and their supporters, will be reaching out to community and industry leaders outside of the Beltway in order to bring wider attention to this problem.”
The decision to compensate potentially tens of thousands of Hispanics and women out of the Judgment Fund averted what was likely to be an uphill struggle with Congress. Nearly a year after the White House had asked for money to compensate the second wave of African-American farmers, Congress was still sitting on its hands. But there was sharp disagreement within the government over whether the claims from Hispanics and women met the Judgment Fund’s “imminent litigation” test.
On the one hand, it was possible that absent a settlement, some people now filing administrative claims might have sued. Judge Robertson was expected to allow new plaintiffs for several more months. Although only 10 women had sued, their lawyers had obtained affidavits alleging discrimination from 2,000 others. Attorneys for the 81 Hispanic farmers also raised the vague specter of tens of thousands of plaintiffs. While one major category of claimants — those who said their loan applications had been unfairly denied — remained eligible for payments of up to $50,000 without any documentation, others were required to produce written evidence that they had complained of bias at the time. The Hispanic plaintiffs were indignant.
The Agriculture Department instructed processors to call about 16,000 people to remind them that time was running out, despite internal disquiet that the government was almost recruiting claims against itself. The deadline was then extended to May 1.
So far, about 1,900 Hispanics and 24,000 women have sought compensation, many in states where middlemen have built a cottage industry, promising to help win payouts for a fee.
Last October, a court-appointed ombudsman wrote that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people had given money to individuals and organizations in the belief that they were reserving the right to file a claim under the second settlement for black farmers, only to learn later that their names had never been forwarded to the authorities. People familiar with that statement said it was directed in part at Thomas Burrell, a charismatic orator and the head of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, based in Memphis.
Mr. Burrell has traveled the South for years, exhorting black audiences in auditoriums and church halls to file discrimination complaints with his organization’s help, in exchange for a $100 annual membership fee.
On a recent Thursday at the Greater Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, several hundred African-Americans listened intently as Mr. Burrell told them they could reap $50,000 each, merely by claiming bias. He left out the fact that black men are no longer eligible, and that black women are eligible only if they suffered gender, not racial, bias.
“The Department of Agriculture admitted that it discriminated against every black person who walked into their offices,” he told the crowd. “They said we discriminated against them, but we didn’t keep a record. Hello? You don’t have to prove it.
source–alan wiseman, judge robertson, lisa olson, daniel meltzer, thomas burrell,