Three Republican congressmen are calling on the Obama administration to launch an investigation into allegations of widespread fraud into a long fought farmer discrimination suit known as Pigford vs. Glickman.
Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Steve King of Iowa, and Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, want to know how it is that over 94,000 black farmers have sought reparations for discrimination, when data show that there are only 33,000 black farmers in the United States? And why, if the discrimination was so widespread, no USDA official was ever fired for it?
For those not familiar with the case, in 1997, 400 black farmers joined Timothy Pigford in a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) alleging that from 1983-1997 racial discrimination prevented them from receiving loans for which they were qualified.
After filing suit against the nominal defendant in the case, Dan Glickman, the then Secretary of Agriculture, Pigford sought “blanket mediation” to cover all the farmers wrongfully denied loans — at that time estimated to be about 2,000 beneficiaries. The Department of Justice refused, instead requesting that each case be investigated on an individual basis.
In 1999, the parties agreed to a settlement whereby black farmers were granted two options, as described in a Congressional Research Service explained in a written report:
“Track A — provide[d] a monetary settlement of $50,000 plus relief in the form of loan forgiveness and offsets of tax liability. Track A claimants had to present substantial evidence…Alternatively, class participants could seek a larger, tailored payment by showing evidence of greater damages under a Track B claim. Track B claimants had to prove their claims and actual damages by a preponderance of the evidence.”
Under this system, the number of claimants ballooned into figures far higher than anything estimated, according to Congressional records. 22,505 individuals claimed Track A status, 59% of those (13,348) were granted approval and 172 were approved for Track B status. Over 73,000 petitions were filed after the deadline, of those 2,116 were allowed to proceed. As of 2009, approximately a billion dollars had been allocated to Track A applicants.
In February of this year, the Obama administration announced a plan to rectify the perceived injustice of excluding those late filers, by doling out $1.25 billion to the over 70,000 late applicants who claimed discrimination on the part of the USDA.
“I’m going to focus all my time and resources on making that happen,” The Washington Post reported current agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack saying on the day of the administration’s announcement. “The president is prepared to indicate that it’s a priority not just for his administration but for the country.”
Bachmann, King, and Goodlatte spoke to reporters on Wednesday, voicing their concerns and highlighting the contentions of unnamed whistle blowers who have approached them, many of whom estimate that around 80% of the claims filed have been fraudulent.
In a statement from Edward Schafer, read by Bachmann, the former USDA Secretary voiced the importance of investigating the allegations. “I have heard that Congress is considering spending eight to ten billion dollars of taxpayer money to pay any claim of discrimination against the government, whether legitimate or not,” he lamented. “This rush to judgment is totally unfair to all taxpayers including the minorities who were truly discriminated against.”
Thus far, over 94,000 black farmers have filed discrimination claims, yet many have pointed out to that there are no where near 94,000 black farmers in the United States — neither now nor when the discrimination allegedly occurred. The last census report shows that there are 39,697 “Black or African American Operators,” but according to Bachmann, today there are only 33,000. In 1992, the heart of the period of alleged discrimination, there were only 18,816 black farmers.
Bachmann, King and Goodlatte aim to deny the appropriation of any funds to the suit until the administration has completed a thorough investigation and resolved the issues at hand.
“We want to make sure there is a quick and timely settlement and that those who have truly and wrongly been discriminated against by the USDA do receive their just and fair settlement,” Bachmann said. “Where our concern lays is in the area of what appears to be massive and widespread fraud and abuse of the Pigford process.”
King said that the case has not gotten much attention due to the radioactive nature of racial issues in this day and age. “It’s a racially charged issue, and that is the bottom line. People are afraid to touch it. If this was something else I think you’d see more of a focus on it,” he said. “Another reason it hasn’t risen to the attention level of this congress is probably because we haven’t said enough or done enough.”