Vilsack Not Focused On Firing Workers Who Discriminated Against African-American Farmers

December 1, 2010 - 5:01 AM

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, Wednesday, July 21, 2010 (AP photo)

Washington (CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration is not focused on firing any Agriculture Department employees responsible for discriminating against at least 66,000 African-American farmers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters, talking about the legal case that prompted a $1.25 billion settlement.

“I think it might be somewhat difficult to be able to establish responsibility for something that may have occurred 20 or 30 years ago,” Vilsack said. “I think what we ought to be doing is focus our time and attention to make sure we are serving today’s farmers as well as we possibly can: Making sure that we try to resolve these cases as fairly as we can, and getting resources to folks who are entitled to them as quickly as we can. Now that’s going to be our focus and direction from a USDA perspective.”

However, according to the government, the discrimination took place between 1981 and 1996, thus it is probable that some employees working for the department in the mid-1990s are still with the department.

Before Thanksgiving, the House on Tuesday gave final approval to $1.15 billion for the Pigford II settlement to compensate African-American farmers who were denied loans from the USDA. The remaining money comes from $100 million approved in the 2008 farm bill pushed by then Sen. Barack Obama.

Vilsack took questions from reporters during a conference call Monday.

One reporter asked, “John Boyd of the National Black Farmers, while appreciative of the action giving the funding through Congress has said ultimate justice for black farmers won’t come until the administration takes action against USDA employees responsible for the discrimination.

“Has USDA and the White House, the president rather, have you completely shut the door in looking at the past. You talked early on about righting the wrongs of the past. Does that include perhaps going back and looking at some of these discrimination cases, seeing who is responsible and taking action?” the reporter asked.

Vilsack said the focus was on the present and the future.

“My focus has been on making sure we don’t get the government and the United States Department of Agriculture in the same situation it’s been in for the last 20 or 30 years, that is by taking a look at our current practices and procedures and making sure that we’re not making the same mistakes again either intentionally or unintentionally,” Vilsack said.

“This is why we have an outside consulting group that is taking a look at our procedures and giving us a set of recommendations at the end of this year for improvements. It’s also why we are engaged in cultural transformation within the USDA to make sure we’re treating our own employees properly with an employment base that is reflective of the America we serve.

“I think it might be somewhat difficult to be able to establish responsibility for something that may have occurred 20 or 30 years ago,” Vilsack continued. “I think what we ought to be doing is focus our time and attention to make sure we are serving today’s farmers as well as we possibly can: Making sure that we try to resolve these cases as fairly as we can, and getting resources to folks who are entitled to them as quickly as we can. Now that’s going to be our focus and direction from a USDA perspective.”

In the same bill passed before Thanksgiving – the Claims Settlement Act of 2010 – Congress approved $3.4 billion for Native Americans who alleged mismanagement of tribal trust funds by the Department of Interior.

Vilsack was joined in the conference call by Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes and Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli to discuss the need for the House to approve the claims act during the lame duck session of Congress.

However, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) questioned why there is no accountability.

“It’s pretty amazing to me that you can have 94,000 people likely discriminated against and you can’t find one single individual responsible for $2.3 billion worth of discrimination,” King told CNSNews.com Monday. “That is a massive amount of discrimination and you can’t find one single perpetrator. Victims are replete and perpetrators are non-existent?”

Further, King contends that the 2008 farm bill did not authorize the USDA and Justice

Department to negotiate a settlement.

“I am pleased that today, the House has joined the Senate in passing the Claims Settlement Act of 2010. This important legislation will fund the agreements reached in the Pigford II lawsuit, brought by African American farmers, and the Cobell lawsuit, brought by Native Americans over the management of Indian trust accounts and resources,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.

“I want to thank Attorney General Holder and Secretaries Salazar and Vilsack for all their work to reach this outcome, and I applaud Congress for acting in a bipartisan fashion to bring this painful chapter in our nation’s history to a close,” Obama added.

“This bill also provides funding for settlements reached in four separate water rights suits brought by Native American tribes, and it represents a significant step forward in addressing the water needs of Indian Country. Yet, while today’s vote demonstrates important progress, we must remember that much work remains to be done. And my Administration will continue our efforts to resolve claims of past discrimination made by women and Hispanic farmers and others in a fair and timely manner,” the president said.

The Pigford I settlement occurred in 1999, and King said it contained high levels of fraud.

He was joined by other House Republicans, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and Michelle Bachmann of Iowa, in calling for a congressional investigation into the payments.

Vilsack said there would be a complex, detailed method for claimants to collect under the Pigford II settlement, and they must prove they filed late for collection, after October 1999 and before June 2008. He said claimants must produce paperwork, and sign documents under penalty of perjury.

Perrelli stressed that each claim would be subject to a review by an independent adjudicator and the process will be subject to multiple audits.

But King is still skeptical.

He said he spoke with Vilsack about the matter and past fraud in Pigford I and does not recall information about audits.

“He assured me there are different people in the USDA now than we had then,” King said.

Initially, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), it was anticipated that the group of African American farmers who would qualify as members of the class that had been victims of USDA discrimination would be about 2,000 individuals.

“Following the 1997 filing for class action status, the attorneys for the black farmers requested blanket mediation to cover all of the then-estimated 2,000 farmers who may have suffered from discrimination by the USDA,” the Congressional Research Service reported.

By 1999, when U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman approved a settlement of the class-action suit between the USDA and the farmers, he pointed out that there were then “fewer than 18,000 African American farms in the United States” and cited “the 15,000 to 20,000 African American farmers now estimated to be members of the class” affected by the settlement.

The Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract for the United States indicates that the total number of African American farmers in the nation in the period in question peaked at 33,000 in 1982.

The consent decree approved on April 14, 1999 by Judge Freidman stated that a claimant must have “owned or leased, or attempted to own or lease farm land;” “applied for a specific credit transaction at a USDA county office;” “the loan was denied, provided late, approved for lesser amount than requested, encumbered by restrictive conditions, or USDA failed to provide appropriate loan service, and such treatment was less favorable than that accorded specifically identified, similarly situated white farmers;” or “USDA’s treatment of the loan application led to economic damage.”

The consent decree called for a public awareness campaign so black farmers who were discriminated against would not miss the deadline to make a claim.

The consent decree said the USDA must “arrange to have 44 commercials announcing the preliminary approval of the Consent Decree and the time and place of the fairness hearing aired on Black Entertainment Network and 18 similar commercials on Cable News Network, during a two-week period.”

Further, the USDA had to have one-quarter page advertisements in “27 general circulation newspapers, and 115 African-American newspapers, in an 18-state region during a two-week period,” as well as a full-page ad “in the editions of TV Guide that are distributed in the 18-state region,” and a “half-page advertisement in the national edition of Jet Magazine.”

In the end, according to a Congressional Research Service report published this year, 22,550 African American farmers made claims by a deadline set in the 1999 settlement, and 15,640 of these farmers were paid compensation by the federal government, while 6,910 were denied compensation. In total, the government paid more than $1 billion in compensation to the 15,640 farmers who received pay outs under the terms of the settlement.

In addition to the 22,550 African American farmers whose cases were handled under the 1999 settlement, however, another 73,800 farmers eventually filed claims that USDA had discriminated against them between 1981 and 1996. Some 66,000 of these filed their claims by a “late filing” deadline that was set up for people who had failed to file their claims on time due to “extraordinary circumstances.”

“Late filing claimants were directed to request permission to submit a late claim to the arbitrator by no later than Sept. 15, 2000,” the CRS reported. “The arbitrator was to determine if the reason for the late filing reflected extraordinary circumstances (e.g. Hurricane Floyd, a person being homebound, or a failure of the postal system).

“Since there reportedly had been extensive and widespread notice of the settlement agreement and process—including local meetings and advertisements in radio, television, newspapers and periodicals across the nation and in heavily populated black minority farmer areas—lack of notice was ruled an unacceptable reason for late filing.” (Italics in the orginal.)

The 2008 farm bill included $100 million to compensation farmers who had filed late claims missing the original deadline in the 1999 settlement between the farmers and the USDA.

On Feb. 18, 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack announced that they had reached a new settlement that would pay an additional $1.25 billion in compensation to up to 66,000 additional African American farmers who allegedly were victims of USDA discrimination.

This settlement would include the $100 million then-Sen. Obama got approved in the 2008 farm bill, but was contingent on Congress approving an additional $1.15 billion. President Obama requested the additional $1.15 billion in his fiscal 2011 budget.