Whether as heads of corporations or government agencies, white executives can be counted upon to grovel if they or their organizations stand accused of discrimination. Such especially is the case with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, whose capacity for fecklessness in the face of his accusers is almost limitless. And not for the first time, his timidity will cost taxpayers. On Monday, September 24, Vilsack announced that Hispanic and women farmers who believe they were unjustly denied grants or credit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can file claims over a six-month period, effective immediately, for cash awards and/or tax relief totaling at least $1.33 billion, plus up to $160 million in debt relief.
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.
Demanding reparations from the federal government is now a growth industry. And Congress just helped it grow some more. Yesterday the House of Representatives voted 256-152 to authorize $4.55 billion to settle a pair of unrelated longstanding class-action lawsuits, one against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the other against the Department of the Interior. In the first case, tens of thousands of black farmers - or at least blacks claiming to have been farmers - will receive $1.15 billion for alleged discrimination during 1981-96 at the hands of administrators of USDA aid programs, but who filed (or could have filed) claims after the deadline. This would be on top of the more than $1 billion that over 15,000 other plaintiffs have received. In the second case, an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Indians will receive access to a $3.4 billion trust fund intended to rectify alleged Interior Department mishandling of royalty payments for the extraction of oil, gas, timber and other natural resources from tribal lands for economic activity. The Senate on November 19 unanimously had approved the settlements.
The scenario is all too familiar: A corporation or government agency, having knuckled under to a group of "civil rights" activists and their lawyers, renders itself an easy target for successful copycat shakedowns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for over a decade has epitomized such capitulation. And once again it has come through. On October 19 the department announced the settlement of a longstanding lawsuit in which thousands of American Indian farmers and ranchers had claimed discrimination by USDA credit program administrators. The $760 million agreement, which gained preliminary court approval yesterday, follows the agency's capitulation earlier this year in separate lawsuits filed by black and Hispanic farmers. Taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.
National Legal and Policy Center more than once has called it a shakedown. Now three members of Congress are suggesting as much. Yesterday Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., held a press conference to call for a Justice Department probe of an out-of-court class-action settlement against the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiated by black farmers during the late Nineties.
Demanding large financial settlements on behalf of black farmers has been a cottage industry for litigators in this country for more than a dozen years. It has flourished because few in Congress or in successive administrations have chosen to challenge this juggernaut. It appears now, however, that this passivity is beginning to recede. Late last month, the Senate stripped $1.25 billion from a far larger supplemental defense spending bill that would have compensated black farmers for alleged acts of racial discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) going back to the early Eighties. Following Senate passage, the House followed suit; President Obama signed the measure last Thursday. In the context of the recent and highly-publicized forced resignation of a mid-level black USDA official, Shirley Sherrod, the issue has taken on an extra edge.
If black farmers claiming racial discrimination can walk off with a large bundle of money - and with a promise of more to come - Hispanic farmers possessed of similar grievances don't see why they can't enjoy the same benefits. It appears as if they've guessed correctly. On May 26, the Justice Department offered up to $1.33 billion to settle a class-action suit filed by a group of Hispanic farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) alleging ethnic discrimination in various programs. The settlement figure incorporates a sum sought in a separate suit by female farmers. As with the black-farmer actions, the claims are at best specious. Yet the lead plaintiffs' attorney is denouncing the offer as a pittance.
Blacks account for about 1.5 percent of all farm operators in this country - and apparently a lot higher share of the civil rights lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). On February 18, lawyers for the USDA and thousands of black farmers reached a $1.25 billion class-action agreement resolving, for now, claims that the department had engaged in willful racial discrimination in managing its loan and other aid programs. Think you've seen this headline before? You have. Back in 1999, black farmers, armed with similar claims of racial bias, snagged a federal guarantee of $50,000 per plaintiff plus loan forgiveness and tax liability offsets.