Looking at USDA settlement of discrimination suits

Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers who allege discrimination by the USDA in past decades can file claims until March 25, 2013. Some critics don't like the USDA settling discrimination suits, especially if settled like the second black farmer Pigford II settlement.

"Hispanic and women farmers who believe they have faced discriminatory practices from the USDA must file a claim by March 25 in order to have a chance to receive a cash payment or loan forgiveness," said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack this week. "The opening of this claims process is part of USDA's ongoing efforts to correct the wrongs of the past and ensure fair treatment to all current and future customers."

The process offers a voluntary alternative to having the USDA taken to court under litigation for each Hispanic or female farmer and rancher who "can prove that USDA denied their applications for loan or loan servicing assistance for discriminatory reasons during the time period between 1981 and 2000.

In the political climate of the last few years, there are opponents to the USDA admitting possible discrimination for Hispanics, females and blacks, and some with strong beliefs suggest the settlements are a way of buying support and votes. There are claims of fraud in the settlement with black farmers. 

As for the Hispanic and female settlement, it was first announced in February 2011 that the voluntary claims process would make available at least $1.33 billion for cash awards and tax relief payments, plus up to $160 million in farm debt relief.

USDA announced that independent legal services companies will administer the claims process and adjudicate the claims. Although there are no filing fees to participate and a lawyer is not required to participate in the claims process, persons seeking legal advice may contact a lawyer or other legal services provider.

The USDA news release provided a positive spin to Secretary Vilsack's leadership. "USDA has instituted a comprehensive plan to strengthen the department as a model service provider and to ensure that every farmer and rancher is treated equally and fairly as part of ‘a new era of civil rights' at USDA. This Administration has made it a priority to resolve all of the past program class action civil rights cases facing the department, and today's announcement is another major step towards achieving that goal.

The second settlement for blacks occurred in February 2010 when the USDA announced the Pigford II settlement with African American farmers, and in October 2010, there was the Keepseagle settlement with Native American farmers. Both of those settlements have since received court approval.

"Unlike the cases brought by African American and Native American farmers, the cases filed by Hispanic and women farmers over a decade ago were not certified as class actions and are still pending in the courts as individual matters. The claims process provides a voluntary alternative to continuing litigation for Hispanic and female farmers and ranchers who want to use it, the USDA explained.

The USDA and Obama administration's black reparation effort was the $1.25-billion Pigford II settlement that benefited black farmers who claimed to have been discriminated against when applying for loans from 1981 to 1996 but who had failed to file on time for the original 1999 Pigford settlement through the USDA.

"Criticisms from Republicans and conservative groups ensued after President Obama signed the legislation in December 2010, paving the way for about 80,000 African-American farmers to file claims projected to average about $50,000. Many critics called it an outright raid on the U.S. Treasury that would force taxpayers to subsidize direct payments to Democratic special interests in the farming industry, wrote Brian Koenig in The New American.com.

"One primary concern was that about 33,000 African-American-owned farms had been in existence at the time of the original Pigford filing, yet a staggering 80,000 claimants had filed for the Pigford II settlement, Koenig further contended in his version of discrimination settlements.

A farmer, Jimmy Dismuke, a black hog farmer from Arkansas, claims he's seen fraud first-hand in the Pigford process, and the claim has been widely circulated by Republication leaning websites. The fraud claim was first published at Big Government.com, a conservative website.

"Dismuke says he has counted more than 300 fraudulent Pigford claims in Arkansas alone, including a case in which people who kept potted tomato plants claimed to be farmers and got $50,000. He also claims that private lawyers made the rounds in black churches, enticing potential claimants with easy payouts, Koenig further wrote.

In additional discrimination-related USDA actions, officials from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) have signed two memorandums of understanding (MOU) designed to foster improved access to USDA and BIA programs by tribes and tribal members. The memorandums apply to programs administered by the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Rural Development at USDA, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior (DOI). The MOUs will further improve the important government-to-government relationships and also the services offered between USDA, BIA and the tribal governments and the communities they serve.

"This agreement between USDA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) will help us increase efficiency, reduce redundancy and improve communications and services between our agencies and the tribes," said Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager. "These improvements will help to spur economic development, strengthen the communities and improve the lives of the people of Indian country," it was announced.


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