WASHINGTON, July 9, 2014 – May 2012 was the deadline for black farmers to submit claims charging USDA with discrimination under the terms of the Pigford I and II class action lawsuits dating from 1997. But that has not stopped speculation that additional payments could and should be made.
Several black farmer organizations maintain that many black farmers either failed to file Pigford claims or were wrongly disqualified for payments and should be given another opportunity to seek compensation. But if there is any further compensation, it won’t be soon, according to Ralph Paige, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. He points out that “sign-up for the Pigford I and II (Black Farmers Discrimination cases), Keepseagle (Native American Farmers case) and the Women and Hispanic Farmers and Ranchers cases are all closed.”
Paige says that since it took another 14 years to get Pigford II payments for the “late filers” who missed the 1999 and 2000 claims deadlines for the original Pigford case, at best “there will be a long struggle to get another chance for people who were left out.” Nonetheless, he promises that the Federation “will continue to work to get justice for all black, Hispanic and women farmers who were mistreated and discriminated against by USDA.”
John Zippert, the Federation’s director of program operations, tells Agri-Pulse he’s “hopeful there may be another chance” to have more farmers’ claims paid. However, he warns that “if the next Congress is more dominated by the Tea Party, it may be more difficult.”
Indeed, when Agri-Pulse asked Congressman Steve King, R-Iowa, whether there was any potential for another round of Pigford payments, he warned that “anyone who would have the audacity to bring up Pigford III” would likely trigger another round of oversight hearings and investigations.
“We don’t want to go down that road again,” said King, who has closely followed the issue. King said that despite all of the payments for alleged wrongdoing, USDA has not identified or penalized “a single perpetrator.”
“If someone had robbed a bank, we would have at least found a perpetrator,” he added.
In August 2013, compensation payments totaling $1.25 billion were approved for 17,665 Pigford II claims out of over 39,000 submitted. About $1.06 billion was paid out earlier on the 15,749 Pigford I claims approved out of 22,721 eligible submissions.
The $2.3 billion in Pigford payments were made to compensate black farmers who claimed that they were discriminated against by USDA officials as they “farmed or attempted to farm” and applied for farm loans or other USDA benefits.
The bulk of the $2.3 billion consists of $50,000 payments to 33,256 individual black farmers or their heirs, plus $12,500 paid to the IRS to cover federal taxes on each award. In Pigford I, 104 of the approved claims were for larger amounts based on documented evidence of greater damages, with payments ranging from $25,000 to over $625,000.
In his original ruling which authorized the Pigford payments, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman stated that based on USDA county offices’ long history of discrimination against black farmers, “it is probable that no amount of money can fully compensate class members for past acts of discrimination” and that “$50,000 is not full compensation in most cases.”
One basis for allegations of widespread fraud by Pigford claimants or attorneys handling the claims is that the USDA Ag Census for 1982 showed only 33,250 African American-operated farms, with that number dropping to 22,954 for 1987, 18,816 for 1992, and 18,451 for 1997, as Agri-Pulse pointed out in an in-depth investigation in 2010.
However, those numbers only counted one operator per farm. Starting in 2002, the Census began counting up to three principal operators per farm and listed 29,090 African American farm operators for 2002. Based on that broader definition, there could have been 60,000 or more black farm operators in the 1980s.
To understand the complexity of the Pigford battles over racial discrimination at USDA, follow the links to 41 “Relevant Documents” at tinyurl.com/nvhoakl. These legal documents track the case from August 1999’s “Pigford Consent Decree” and 65-page “Judge Friedman's Opinion” to August 2013’s “Order Approving Modification of Settlement Agreement.” For payment breakdowns, see tinyurl.com/kuortxg.
For more news, go to www.agri-pulse.com.