White House Won’t Say If Administration Will Discipline USDA Officials for Alleged Discrimination Against up to 66,000 Black Farmers

By Fred Lucas | November 5, 2010 | 12:27 PM EDT

President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(CNSNews.com) – White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs did not have an answer on whether the administration will insist that U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials who allegedly engaged in discrimination against black farmers be fired or disciplined, and referred the issue back to the USDA. However, as this story went to press, the USDA had not responded to requests by CNSNews.com for an answer.

In addition, the Justice Department headed by Attorney General Eric Holder, along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, released an announcement about the issue but it also does not say whether USDA officials will be disciplined.

President Barack Obama has an outstanding budget request to Congress for $1.15 billion to compensate what the Justice Department says are up to 66,000 black farmers discriminated against between 1981 and 1996 by certain employees of the USDA. The USDA workers allegedly denied the black farmers federal farm loans or benefits during that timeframe.

Congress already approved $100 million in 2008 for compensation for black farmers who were discriminated against by USDA. In February, however, the administration reached a new settlement to pay out $1.25 billion to African American farmers. (The original $1.15 billion request plus the $100 million approved, totaling $1.25 billion.)

Meanwhile, a $680-million settlement between the USDA and American Indian farmers who were allegedly discriminated against between 1981 and 1999 gained preliminary approval Monday in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.

The money for the American Indian settlement does not require congressional authorization as it comes from a “judgment fund,” according to a USDA press release.

Both settlements--for the American Indians and the black farmers--dealt with the denial of USDA low-interest loans and subsidies to the groups.

On Thursday, CNSNews.com asked Robert Gibbs, “Will the administration insist that some of those USDA employees who did practice discrimination be fired or disciplined?”

Gibbs deferred, saying, “I would point you over to USDA in terms of what was listed inside of that settlement related to things like that.”

CNSNews.com followed, “Will there be an accountability aspect to--”

Gibbs said, “Again, I’ve not read the judgment of the settlement, and I would point you over to them.”

CNSNews.com also asked, “Where do you think the request for $1.25 billion stands now with the new Congress?”

Gibbs was uncertain.

“I know that it was outstanding in the last Congress,” Gibbs said. “I don’t know if it will be in--and I don’t have an update on whether it would be in spending bills that would be done by the end of the year. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Another reporter followed up on the question, as to whether the Senate that is still under Democratic control would approve the $1.25 billion request. Gibbs told the reporter, “I don’t have a legislative update on this.”

A USDA spokesperson did not respond to phone messages or e-mails from CNSNews.com on Friday as of press time regarding questions of accountability. Last month, a USDA official told CNSNews.com that all personnel disciplinary information is not public, and would not provide a number, if any, of the USDA officials who may have been disciplined for the discrimination.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a joint announcement about the black farmers’ settlement on Feb. 18. Holder and Vilsack issued a separate announcement of the American Indian settlement on Oct. 19.

Neither announcement said anything about holding USDA officials accountable through discipline or dismissal.

CNSNews.com previously reported that while one government settlement covers up to 66,000 black farmers who allegedly were discriminated against between 1981 and1996, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that between Jan. 1, 1981 through Dec. 31, 1996, the number of black farm operators nationally peaked at 33,000 in 1982.

(CNSNews.com Video Reporter Nicholas Ballasy contributed to this story.)