When Congress last November approved $1.15 billion to settle residual claims of racial discrimination by black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), supporters lauded the vote and President Obama’s signature the following month. This, they said, was justice belatedly done. Yet critics justifiably have argued that the class-action suit rests on an edifice of fraud. One of them, a member of Congress, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is taking action. He’s lined up a pair of unnamed witnesses, one a black farmer and the other a longtime USDA employee, willing to tell all. Early this month, Rep. King announced these individuals indicated a willingness to reveal to Congress that plaintiffs’ attorneys engaged in an unscrupulous campaign to sign up co-plaintiffs, many of whom never farmed in their lives. The issue now is whether he can persuade his colleagues to hold a hearing.
National Legal and Policy Center for nearly a year has maintained that the 14-year-old case, currently known as Pigford v. Vilsack – or Pigford II – has been a race-based shakedown from the start. It’s a twisted saga that reveals more than a little about what’s gone awry with our legal system. A North Carolina black farmer, Timothy Pigford, later joined by fellow black farmer Cecil Brewington, in August 1997 filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia alleging that the USDA had denied loans and other assistance to black applicants based on their race during January 1, 1983-February 21, 1997. The suit, which proposed class-action status, was based on a highly suspect study by the Atlanta-based consulting firm of D.J. Miller & Associates commissioned by the USDA to analyze the latter’s treatment of minorities. Then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and others in the Clinton administration had been feeling heat from civil-rights groups to root out what they claimed was discrimination.
Evidence of a pattern of willful discrimination in the management of USDA loan and payment programs proved nonexistent due to gross deficiencies in data collection and analysis. Many financial records no longer existed. And Timothy Pigford was a less than ideal plaintiff, having filed suit against the USDA a few years earlier only to have the action dismissed “with prejudice,” which meant, legally speaking, he was ineligible to file again later on. Pigford, aided by Washington, D.C. attorney Alexander Pires, plowed ahead anyway, assuming the department would roll over in the face of accusations of racism. The assumption proved correct. Not only did the plaintiffs acquire class-action status, but they also won blanket (as opposed to case-by-case) mediation. A pair of pressure groups, the National Black Farmers Association and the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, gave the case a high profile, claiming the USDA systematically had engaged in discrimination. Neither cited hard evidence.
The campaign paid off. Opponents of the Agriculture Department, led by Rep. Eva Clayton, D-N.C., succeeded in removing the agency’s statute of limitations and sovereign immunity protections. The USDA, sensing defeat in court, capitulated. On April 14, 1999, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman approved a consent decree settlement, declaring each farmer to be eligible to apply for a lump sum “Track A” award of $50,000 plus relief from outstanding loans and tax liability for discrimination occurring during 1981-96; a “Track B” award would make available unlimited compensation so long as plaintiffs could provide substantial evidence. Almost all plaintiffs opted for the former – and no wonder. The original 1997 complaint cited no examples of discrimination by USDA officials. Prior to its filing, Glickman had ordered a review of nearly a thousand backlogged discrimination complaints. Researchers concluded that in only five cases was there evidence of even potential discrimination, a fact the department chose to suppress. Yet the USDA, while admitting no wrongdoing in the 1999 settlement, agreed to the terms, which included spending $450,000 on advertising the availability of monetary awards in media outlets with large black audiences.
The settlement, in other words, was a reparations program all but in name. The bar for documentation was almost nonexistent. A claimant did not have to prove ownership of, or even employment at, a farm. Any claim of being turned down for a loan, whether or not substantiated, could qualify as having “attempted to farm.” That the USDA had kept unsuccessful loan applications on file for only three years heightened the potential for fraud. And the fraudsters were out in force. In some cases, claimants tried to certify young children or the deceased. In others, a husband and wife filed separately in order to collect twice for a single act of “discrimination.”
Fitfully, the government did pursue fraud – successfully. In 2005, Daniel Ezugo Anekwu, vice president for business and finance at historically black Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Fla., pleaded guilty in Jacksonville federal court to collecting Pigford payments by submitting bogus claims in the names of his wife, mother-in-law and another relative. As part of his plea agreement, he testified against two other scam artists, Kimberly Colston Woodruff and Emma Okari Brooks, who also pleaded guilty. Ms. Woodruff had posed as Mr. Anekwu’s wife. She in turn had allowed Brooks to file phony claims in her name and those of her mother and son. Ms. Brooks, a former professor of social work who for a while had served as vice president for academic affairs at Edward Waters College, had a long history of financial fraud in several states, especially against the elderly. According to federal indictments, soon after the announcement of the original settlement, Anekwu and Brooks traveled to Arkansas “to learn how to create and submit fraudulent claims.” The pair and their audiences alike reveled in racial payback. A 2005 article in the Florida Times-Union reported: “In meetings in churches and other venues around Pine Bluff, Ark., Brooks and other participants were told the settlement was a veiled way to collect reparations for centuries-old grievances.”
There actually was much worse. Evidence indicates that payouts were connected to a pair of murders in southern Mississippi. A black woman named Clovis Reed in 2003 had been scheduled to testify against two other blacks, Roosevelt Walker and his girlfriend Kathleen Nelson, after they had been charged by federal prosecutors with orchestrating fraud under Pigford. Ms. Reed soon “disappeared.” Walker and Nelson eventually were convicted of murdering their co-conspirator largely on the strength of testimony by Nelson’s sister, Levon Edmond, who received a 25-year sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy to kill a federal witness. Ms. Edmond’s daughter, Shunterria Williams, pleaded guilty to perjury.
The ultimate heavy in the case was Joe Lewis Collins. During testimony, Edmond stated that Collins and a woman, Ebony Scott, attempted to set up a conspiracy in which they would persuade other black “farmers” to file false claims. For each $50,000 payout, Edmond would receive a $2,000 finder’s fee after the front man got $16,000 and Collins and Scott split the other $32,000. However, Clovis Reed, a “longtime friend” of her killers, got “greedy” and “wanted it all,” stated Edmond. Collins, Walker and Nelson, fearful Ms. Reed either would keep all the money or go to the authorities, killed her; in a gruesome coda, Collins cut off her head and hands. Following discovery, Reed’s body was identified through DNA testing. Ebony Scott wouldn’t be long for this world either. Edmond testified that she was murdered by Collins following a dispute and buried in a wooded area in Simpson County, Mississippi. Collins, who had a previous conviction for a machete attack, was convicted in the Reed murder, and in December 2008 received a life sentence.
The government’s silence in the matter of Ebony Scott’s murder has been deafening. Assistant U.S. Attorney Harold Brittain stated in January 2006: “The government has not verified that she is dead, but doesn’t know if she is alive.” Brittain added that the Justice Department had no further plans to seek fraud indictments because “likely the statute of limitations has run out.” Two things in his statement stand out here. First, “likely” isn’t the same thing as “definitely.” Prosecutors could have investigated whether the statute of limitations applied in short order. Second, the language suggests Brittain’s bosses suspected that fraud, and possible related violence, indeed was rampant, but didn’t want to inflame black “civil rights” leaders with inconvenient facts.
What we have in the Pigford case, then, is an open invitation for the basest human instincts to rise to the surface. Yet despite absurdly lax qualifying standards, not all eligible plaintiffs have succeeded in their quest for a quick $50,000. As of December 28, 2010, 15,645 of 22,551, or 69 percent, of all “Final ‘Track A’ Decisions Adjusted for Reexamination Results” were approvals (http://www.pigfordmonitor.org/stats/). It is fair to say that the other 31 percent were entirely without merit. Total ‘Track A’ payments, including noncash awards and debt relief, have amounted to a little over $1 billion.
The money train would expand its route. Various plaintiffs, eligible or not, claimed the USDA had denied them adequate notice about the availability of benefits prior to the filing deadline of October 12, 1999, which in fact had been extended to September 15, 2000 for extraordinary cases. These late filers wanted their share of the boodle, too. On May 27, 2008, the Philadelphia-area litigation shop of Pogust, Braslow & Millrood announced they had rounded up hundreds of class-action plaintiffs to deliver it. After lengthy negotiations, Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last February they had reached an agreement to establish a $1.25 billion pool for late and would-be filers. As Congress only five days prior to the Pogust, Braslow and Millrood announcement had authorized $100 million for this purpose as part of a larger farm bill (then-Sen. Barack Obama, in fact, was a key co-sponsor of that measure), at issue was legislation authorizing the remaining $1.15 billion. Last November, after several attempts, the Democrat-dominated House and Senate passed it, bundling the funds with a $3.4 billion trust created in the wake of a settlement resolving (highly questionable) claims that the Interior Department had mishandled royalty payments for extraction of natural resources from Indian tribal lands. The legislation is known as the Claims Settlement Act (P.L. 111-291).
Silence from Congress over the lack of credibility in the black farmers’ suit, at least, hasn’t been complete. Last September 29, two months before passage of the Claims Settlement Act, Reps. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Steve King, R-Iowa, held a press conference calling for an end to all Pigford payouts pending a full investigation by the Justice Department, Congress and USDA. The trio noted the incongruity that 94,000 inquiries already had been made to the USDA about collecting claims, despite a written statement before a House Agriculture Subcommittee back on October 14, 1999 by National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd Jr. that by the end of the milennium (i.e., the year 1999) “there will be less than 18,000 black farmers” in the U.S. “These numbers speak to massive fraud,” noted Reps. Bachmann, Goodlatte and King. Unfazed, the House late in November voted 256-152 in favor of funding after unanimous Senate approval. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the nominal defendant, gave a ringing endorsement. Passage, he stated, represented “a major milestone in USDA’s efforts to turn the page on a sad chapter in our history…President Obama and I pledged not only to treat all farmers fairly and equally, but to right the wrongs of the past for farmers who faced discrimination.”
But with a new GOP-majority House taking office this month, a buoyed Congressman King isn’t about to let his objections disappear down the memory hole. A member of the House Agriculture and Judiciary Committees, King has announced earlier this month that he has talked with two unnamed persons ready to testify. These whistleblowers may provide the most potent evidence yet that Pigford and Pigford II have been shakedowns of taxpayers perpetrated by plaintiffs’ lawyers and their clients. One potential witness is a black farmer who himself was involved in the initial late-Nineties lawsuit. In the course of a more than two-hour conversation, this individual told King that he witnessed certain attorneys traveling to neighborhoods to sign people up as class-action litigants who had never done any farming. The second whistleblower is a longtime USDA employee who processed farm loans in the South, where most black farmers operate. In the course of an hour and a half conversation with Rep. King, this individual said he was personally aware of numerous fraudulent claims filed under the original settlement. Both witnesses preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation or intimidation, but have stated their willingness to testify before Congress under oath, if given the opportunity.
There are other doubters who may come forward. Rep. King has stated that over the years, as a member of the House Agriculture Committee, he has spoken with other USDA officials who have relevant information about potential fraud. At least a couple staffers have expressed a willingness to cooperate. Congressman King explains why they are taking genuine risks: “I asked several of them – would you be willing to testify if called upon. Some of them like the jobs that they have now. This puts them at significant risk. So there are a couple that said they would cooperate with a congressional investigation, but they would not speak on the record in any other fashion.”
Representatives of black farmers’ organizations are outraged anyone could doubt the veracity of their allegations. A congressional investigation of Pigford, said Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, would “make the victim the enemy.” Reps. King and Bachmann, he said, “should be ashamed” for demanding a probe. It’s worth noting that his organization in 2004 filed a $20.5 billion class-action suit alleging, without evidence, discrimination by the USDA since 1997. That case was dismissed the following year as having no legal standing. The National Black Farmers Association’ John Boyd, who has been a civil-rights hero for many blacks the whole time, noted last year: “There are farmers dying with no resources who have been shut out of these government programs, and it was done by design. They (USDA) cut off the credit, and there was no choice for many but to close up shop. We are losing this land for virtually no money.” Such people apparently can’t stand any scrutiny of the preset narrative of blacks as noble, suffering victims.
The issue boils down to this: Will Congress, in the face of the above evidence, hold a hearing on the possibility that plaintiffs and their attorneys, with the complicity of certain employees within the Agriculture Department, engaged in fraud? The government already has spent more than $1 billion mollifying claimants; now it is about to spend another $1.25 billion. In the political culture of race-based shakedowns, where shame is the name of the game, plaintiffs apparently need no evidence to back up accusations. Thanks to Congressman Steve King, the nation now has an opportunity to get a full accounting of this criminal manipulation of our legal system. But witnesses can’t testify if a hearing doesn’t take place.