USDA Secretary Not Saying If Any Federal Officials Have Been--Or Will Be--Fired for Alleged Discrimination Against 66,000 Black Farmers

November 22, 2010 - 12:05 PM


Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – When the lame duck U.S. House of Representatives returns from its Thanksgiving recess, it will consider approving $1.15 billion in compensation to as many as 66,000 African American farmers who were allegedly discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) between 1981 and 1996.

The lameduck Senate approved the $1.15 billion compensation fund on Friday. The money had been requested by President Barack Obama in his fiscal 2011 budget.

When asked by CNSNews.com, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack could not say if any USDA official has ever been fired or disciplined--or will ever be fired--for engaging in the alleged discrimination against the 66,000 African American farmers.

CNSNews.com asked Vilsack about the matter just days before the Senate cleared the $1.15 billion appropriation last week.

In a videotaped interview, when CNSNews.com asked Vilsack if any USDA officials had been fired for the discrimination in the black farmers case, he said that the department was undertaking a “top to bottom review” aimed at making sure there was no recurrence of discrimination.

Vilsack also did not have an answer to the question of how many employees had been disciplined for the alleged discrimination. He further pointed out that many USDA employees who might have been guilty of the alleged discrimination in question no longer work for the department.

CNSNews.com followed up by asking Vilsack, “Should any individuals be fired if they were directly involved in discrimination?”

Vilsack responded by saying that the focus of his department was on compensating African American farmers who had been discriminated against and on ensuring there is no discrimination in the future.

"Obviously people need to be held accountable,” Vilsack told CNSnews.com. “But in order to determine accountability, you have to have a review of what is currently taking place and the processes that are in place today.

“This is a very complicated issue and it doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. Because of the nature of the decisions that are made, the reason why decisions are made. Bottom line, folks need to be compensated,” he continued. “Bottom line, if there are processes in place today, if there are procedures in place today, or decision making that is taking place today that could give rise to future claims, clearly, that has to be the focus.”

The Obama administration reached a settlement with the black farmers in February agreeing to pay compensation of up to $1.25 billion, contingent on Congress approving the funding. As a senator, Obama had sponsored legislation included in the 2008 farm bill that appropriated $100 million for a fund to compensate the farmers. In his fiscal 2011 budget, Obama asked for an additional $1.15 billion.

As part of the same legislation that passed by unanimous consent Friday, the Senate also approved a $3.4 billion settlement in a land trust case that resolved the complaints of more than 300,000 Native Americans who alleged the government mismanaged royalty payments for natural resources on tribal lands. This matter dealt with the Department of Interior and is unrelated to a $680 million settlement with the USDA and Native American farmers approved in U.S. District Court over alleged discrimination between 1981 and 1999, which does not require congressional authorization.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) says he plans to take up the compensation issue before the lameduck session of the House is finished.

“I hope to bring this bill to the House Floor for a vote very soon so that our government can continue to move forward in fulfilling our obligation to African American farmers and Native Americans,” Hoyer said in a statement.

Earlier this month, CNSNews.com asked White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs if the administration would insist that USDA officials who practiced discrimination against African American farmers be fired or disciplined. Gibbs referred CNSNews.com to the USDA for an answer to that question. Vilsack, of course, is the political appointee who runs USDA on behalf of the Obama administration.

The federal compensation program for African American farmers began back in the late 1990s when two groups of farmers sued the USDA, alleging that the department had discriminated against them as African Americans in distributing federally subsidized farm loans between 1981 and 1996. The farmers’ case became a class action suit in federal court, and in 1999 the Clinton administration negotiated a court-approved settlement with the farmers.

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. 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.)

Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) managed to get $100 million approved in the 2008 farm bill to pay compensation to farmers who had filed late claims missing the original deadline in the 1999 settlement between the farmers and the USDA. On Feb. 18 of this year, 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.

On Sept. 30, Representatives Steve King (R.-Iowa), Michele Bachmann (R.-Minn), and former House Agriculture Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R.-Va.) held a press conference to oppose including the additional $1.15 billion settlement money in the continuing resolution Congress was preparing to keep the government funded when the new fiscal year that started on Oct. 1. Bachmann pointed to the discrepancy between the number of claims filed and the number of African American farmers reported by the Census.

When he announced the $1.25 billion settlement the administration had negotiated in February, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack said that the Obama administration was making civil rights a “top priority” in his department.

"As I testified before Congress during my confirmation hearings last year, the USDA under the Obama Administration has made civil rights a top priority, which is why we are working to implement a comprehensive program to take definitive action to move USDA into a new era as a model employer and premier service provider," said Vilsack.

Bob Goodlatte

Rep. Bob Goodlatter (R-Va.)

But fraudulent claims should be weeded out from legitimate claims, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), a former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee told CNSNews.com. Goodlatte pointed to the disparity between the overall number of claims that have been made versus the Census Bureau’s estimate of the number of black farmers in the country during the years in question.

“Anybody who suffered that kind of discrimination should be fairly compensated for any loss they suffered due to racial discrimination by the department. That’s unacceptable,” Goodlatte told CNSNews.com. “By the same token, if that has been taking place, as I believe it has in a number of instances, you would think that people long ago would have been fired.”

Before asking Congress for $1.15 billion, the USDA should address the issue of accountability in the department, Goodlatte added.

“It is wrong to come to the Congress and ask for money when they have never addressed the root cause of the problem, which are those people in the department who have engaged in acts of discrimination,” Goodlatte said. “Identify them, tell what disposition was done in regard to their status in the department, and what specific cases are attached to those. Then the Congress should--with that evidence, with that information--come up with a way to compensate those who were specifically discriminated against in these fashions.”

King, who like Goodlatte is a member of both the House agriculture and judiciary committees, believes there should be congressional oversight hearings into the matter.

“If we can justify distributing a little over $1 billion in Pigford I and he can justify distributing another $1.3 billion in Pigford II for a total of $2.3 billion of taxpayer money, under the allegation that there was $2.3 billion worth of discrimination that was committed against minorities, specifically, black farmers in America,” King told CNSNews.com.

“There is not $1 worth of restitution, or $1 worth of punishment, nor has anybody been fired--we can find no one and we have scoured this thing very thoroughly,” King continued. “No one’s been punished except for taxpayers. It makes you wonder how much discrimination actually did take place.”

In reference to the 66,000 African American farmers who would be eligible for compensation under Vilsack’s settlement because they had allegedly been the victims of USDA discrimination, CNSNews.com asked Vilsack on Monday: “How many USDA employees have been held accountable. Have there been any firings or disciplinary actions?”

“First of all, a lot of this occurred in the 1980s,” Vilsack told CNSNews.com. “So it’s difficult to determine if some of the people who may have been responsible may no longer be working at the USDA.”

steve king

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)

A USDA employee who was 36 years old when he engaged in discrimination in 1996, during the Clinton administration, would be 50 years old this year—and could still be a very active USDA official.

“What we have done is this, we’ve instituted a top to bottom review of all our policies and programs through the Jackson-Lewis Group in 16 states that gave rise to a majority of these complaints,” Vilsack said. “And we’re asking them to make recommendations on how we can prevent this from occurring. To me, the most important thing we can is that we don’t continue to have a process or procedure--whether intentional or unintentional--continues to create more claims and more cases. The second thing we’ve done is we have reopened some of these cases that were barred by the statute of limitations in the previous administration and we’re taking a look at how we might be able to reopen some of those cases to allow those folks to have some justice."

CNSNews.com followed up: “Have any employees or officials been fired that were involved in the discrimination?”

“The review right now is to take a look at the programs,” Vilsack said. “It has not been completed. I expect and anticipate a report by the end of this year. It’s been an ongoing process. It’s been a process that involves thousands of interviews and focus groups and a wide variety of review of documents. I want to see what that has to say before I make any other decisions. That’s the first thing we thought needed to be done, which was an extensive review what we know is the case today. And again, it’s very difficult, 20 years after the fact or 30 years after the fact. What I’m interested in is making sure these folks are taken care of from a justice standpoint and making sure we don’t repeat the same problems mistakes in the future.”

CNSNews.com then asked: “Should any individuals be fired if they were directly involved in discrimination?”

“Obviously people need to be held accountable,” said Vilsack. “But in order to determine accountability, you have to have a review of what is currently taking place and the processes that are in place today. This is a very complicated issue and it doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. Because of the nature of the decisions that are made, the reason why decisions are made. Bottom line, folks need to be compensated. Bottom line, if there are processes in place today, if there are procedures in place today, or decision making that is taking place today that could give rise to future claims, clearly, that has to be the focus.”

On Friday, Vilsack praised the Senate for its approved the $1.15 billion allocation.

“This announcement marks a major milestone in USDA's efforts to turn the page on a sad chapter in our history,” Vilsack said in a written statement. “Civil rights is a top priority of mine, and since coming to USDA, I have implemented a comprehensive program to correct past errors, learn from mistakes, and take definitive action to ensure that all of our customers are treated fairly. This announcement is yet another step to help move us forward into a new era as a model employer and premier service provider.”