Fire USDA Employees Guilty of Discrimination, Black Farmer Activist Says

December 14, 2010 - 5:01 AM

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, Wednesday, July 21, 2010 (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Even though President Barack Obama signed legislation to authorize a total $1.25 billion to compensate black farmers who alleged discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an activist in the case wants to know why no government employees lost their jobs.

“This is the second go around now. It will be somewhere over $2 billion that will have been spent because of agents in the USDA practicing discrimination and racism, and no one is asking for any investigation of the agents,” Gary R. Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculture Association, told CNSNews.com.

Grant said he recognized it can be tough to discipline employees of the federal government.

“We understand that there is a difference in employee rights,” Grant said. “But they also took an oath and agreed that they were going to perform in that office under the rules and regulations and the guidelines of the government. And they didn’t do that, so they ought to be fired.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that firing USDA employees for discrimination is not a focus of the administration. Instead, the administration is focused on compensation.

“I think it might be somewhat difficult to be able to establish responsibility for something that may have occurred 20 or 30 years ago,” Vilsack said earlier this month. “I think what we ought to be doing is focus our time and attention to make sure we are serving today’s farmers as well as we possibly can.”

Black farmers were allegedly denied federal farm loans by the county commissions of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency from between 1981 and 1996. Thus, Grant said, there are likely employees still at the USDA who were responsible.

The federal government settled with black farmers in 1999, paying out $1 billion to 15,640 claimants in Pigford I, named for the lead plaintiff. However, there were 73,000 inquiries to the USDA made after the extended September 2000 deadline.

According to members of Congress and an attorney for the plaintiffs, the number of inquiries has increased to 94,000, but fewer than that will actually collect payments.

As a senator, Barack Obama managed to get $100 million in the 2008 farm bill for black farmers who missed the deadline for Pigford I, setting the parameters for Pigford II.

In February 2010, Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder agreed with the black farmers on a $1.25 billion settlement. Last month, Congress approved $1.15 billion to add to the $100 million to complete the $1.25 billion settlement.

Some House Republicans have cited the lack of accountability by USDA employees as a lack of proof for both the Pigford I and Pigford II cases, including Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) who believes Congress should investigate the case for possible fraud.

Grant doesn’t believe fraud will be a problem and suggested Congress should investigate the Agriculture Department instead.

“I don’t understand it,” Grant continued. “You want to ask for an investigation of the people that they discriminated against and put out of business illegally?”

CNSNews.com asked Vilsack in November if anyone has been fired for the discrimination against plaintiffs in the case and if any USDA employees should be fired for discrimination.

“Obviously people need to be held accountable,” Vilsack told CNSNews.com. “But in order to determine accountability, you have to have a review of what is currently taking place and the processes that are in place today. This is a very complicated issue, and it doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. Because of the nature of the decisions that are made, the reason why decisions are made. Bottom line, folks need to be compensated.”

David J. Frantz, an attorney for the plaintiffs, previously told CNSNews.com he believed that someone should be fired.

On CNN, John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, which was also active in the Pigford cases, said there should have been firings. CNSNews.com could not reach Boyd for comment. His voicemail was not taking any more messages, nor was the number listed for the National Black Farmers Association.

“I can tell you about discrimination, because I had a county official to spit on me and to tear my application up and throw it in the trash can,” Boyd said on CNN. “That person was never fired. He was transferred to another county office to continue to work out his service for the United States Department of Agriculture, and they gave him a big party, a big retirement party.”