Response to the coverage of the Pigford Settlement in the
April 26, New York Times
Note: We are deeply concerned about the inaccuracy and misleading statements made in Sharon LeFraniere's article "Federal Spigot Flows as Farmers Claims Discrimination".
We are also concerned that the reporter never interviewed those who
have been involved in addressing the discrimination Black farmers have
experienced since the 1960's. Further, LeFraniere never reported in
detail the discriminatory behavior of the USDA staff toward minority
farmers during the 1981-1996 claims period of the lawsuit much less
since the beginning of the farm programs in the 1930's. Nor did she
focus on what the USDA staff polices are and how USDA staff were
supposed to assist and encourage farmers in their farming needs and
concerns. Consequently, she did not report on the violations of
government regulations and policies by the USDA staff. Instead, Ms.
LeFraniere chose to critique the Black farmer victims and those at the
USDA who were attempting to correct this injustice. From the 1930's
until now, this has been a sad chapter in the
American history of discrimination that, thankfully, is being somewhat
addressed in the Pigford lawsuit. Below is a listing that corrects some
of the misinformation in the LeFraniere article.
Article: "From the start, the claims process....encouraged people to lie"
Claimants and the attorneys had to sign the claim form under penalty of
perjury. Frivolous claims by underage
individuals were screened out by the claims facilitator. While few
documents existed, every claim was subject to scrutiny be a team of USDA
officials. The claims were decided by experienced neutrals and, in the
end, 30% of all claims were denied.
"But critics, including some of the original black plaintiffs, say that
is precisely what the government did when it first agreed to compensate
not only those who had proof of bias, but those who had none."
claimant had to prove bias to prevail on a claim, including
identification of a similarly situation white farmer who received more
favorable treatment than the black farmer.
Article: "Justice department lawyers worried about false claims....it was better to err on the side of giving money to people..."
was no giveaway. Initially 40% of all claims were denied. Some of these
people appealed and, in the end, 30% of all claims were denied.
Article: "Claimants described how, at packed meetings, lawyers' aides would fill out forms for them on the spot, supplying answers..."
never happened at the 250+ meetings conducted by class counsel. They
were instructed not to sign claim forms under penalty of perjury unless
they believed that the individual had a valid claim. On average, they
turned away 25% of the claimants and were criticized by many who
believed that the claim process was too rigorous.
of unfair treatment could be checked against department files if
claimants had previously received loans...but there was no way to refute
what they said."
USDA did refute claims even where no documentation existed. They often
submitted affidavits disputing a claim that the person had applied for
Article: "In Maple Hill .....dozens of other families shared addresses, phone numbers or close family connections."
claims were carefully screened by the EPIQ Systems, one of the foremost
class action administrators in the country. Only one claim per farming
operation was allowed. Multiple claims by family members were
consolidated into one claim. Claims with same last names, same
addresses, same telephone numbers were carefully screened to enforce the
limit of one claim per farm operation.
Article: "But four-fifths of successful claimants had never done so [previously received loans]."
basis does the reporter have for making this claim? There is no data
analysis on this issue. By implying that those persons are unworthy of
relief or should be disregarded to avoid the possibility of fraud, that
statement strikes at the very heart of this claims process-its goal of
providing compensation to farmers who were excluded from USDA's
programs. Of course, people who were excluded would not have previously
some critics, including some of the original black plaintiffs, say that
is precisely what the government did [open up a Pandoras box] when it
first agreed to compensate not only those who had proof of bias, but
those who had none (emphasis added).
is incorrect. Each claim in Pigford I, to be successful, had to
establish sufficient facts by the claimants own declaration (which is
proof in court like any testimony) that he or she suffered
discrimination, including the names of white farmers who got
the specific farm loan benefit he or she was denied. Then, USDA could,
and in many cases did, submit evidence that it believed contradicted the
claimants declaration. All this evidence was evaluated by a trained
adjudicator. This process simply cannot be described as one in which the
farmer can win without any proof of bias.
five months after the lawsuit was filed, and without the investigative
step of discovery, the Justice Department opened settlement
statement suggests there was no discovery or litigation after five
months. That is wrong. Both sides engaged in discovery and typical
pre-trial motions practice for a year before substantive settlement
negotiations commenced in August 1998. And the negotiations really got
serious only after plaintiffs won their motion for class certification
in October 1998, some 14 months after the case was filed.
story is largely anecdotal - sure there are people at USDA who are
vested in the system who refuse to admit the undeniable legacy of
discrimination at the department.
presentation of data is misleading. The number of farms operating in
1997 is essentially irrelevant. The case covers a 16 year period during
which there were over 125,000 African Americans engaged in farming at
one time or another.
documentation was required because 1) USDA destroyed the denied loan
applications and civil rights complaints; 2) the case went back to 1981
so many folks had lost or destroyed their own records. It went back to
1981 because USDA shut down its civil rights office in the early 80's so
minorities were denied the opportunity to present their claims at a
time when they would have had records.
Out of 503 cases referred to the FBI, they chose to investigate 60 - 3/10 of 1 percent of the 22000 claims. That is miniscule.
denial of credit and benefits has had a devastating impact on African
American farmers. According to the Census of Agriculture, the number of
African American farmers has declined from 925,000 in 1920 to
approximately 18,000 in 1992. CRAT Report at 14. The farms of many
African American farmers were foreclosed upon, and they were forced out
of farming. Those who managed to stay in farming often were subject to
humiliation and degradation at the hands of the county
supervisors and were forced to stand by powerless, as white farmers
received preferential treatment.
Federation/LAF, now in its 45th year, assists Black family farmers
across the South with farm management, debt restructuring, alternative
crop suggestions, marketing expertise and a whole range of services to
ensure family farm survivability.