Investigate 'Fraud-Plagued' $1.15-Billion Settlement With Black Farmers, Congressman Says

Susan Jones | June 18, 2011 | 8:25am EDT
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Rep. Steve King (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

( - An effort to stop more than a billion dollars of taxpayer money from being redistributed to "anonymous claimants" failed in the House this week, but it may have set the stage for a congressional investigation.

Rep. Steve King's amendment to block $1.15 billion allocated for the "fraud-plagued" Pigford II discrimination settlement with black farmers failed on a vote of 155-262 on Friday.

All 155 votes in favor of blocking the money came from Republicans. And 78 Republicans – including Reps. Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Alan West (Fla.) -- joined Democrats in killing the amendment. (See roll call)

Rep. King (R-Iowa) offered the amendment to an Agriculture Appropriations bill because of concerns about widespread fraud in the Agriculture Department's second settlement with black farmers who claim they were discriminated against in getting USDA farm loans and benefits in the 16-year period from Jan. 1, 1981 to Dec. 31, 1996.

Although his amendment failed, King noted that 155 Members of Congress "are prepared to join me in pulling the plug on funding" for the settlement, dubbed "Pigford II" after the name of the lead plaintiff.

"In light of the strong showing of support for my effort to block funding for Pigford II, the House should now be prepared to initiate a Congressional investigation. The 155 votes my amendment received indicate that the stage has been set for this Congress to investigate Pigford II fraud fully," King said.

As previously reported, the federal government in 1999 paid out about $1 billion to 15,640 black farmers who claimed the USDA had discriminated against them by refusing to provide them with federally subsidized farm loans and benefits in the years 1981-1996.

In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama got another $100 million appropriated through that year's farm bill to compensate African American farmers who alleged discrimination by USDA during the 1981-1996 period but had missed the 1999 filing deadline under the original Pigford case.

Then in 2010, President Barack Obama signed a bill awarding another $1.15 billion to African American farmers who supposedly missed the Pigford I deadline -- and on top of the earlier $100 million. It is this $1.15 billion that Rep. King is seeking to block.

King has said the settlement with black farmers has morphed into a “modern-day slavery reparations programs.”

Critics also say the numbers don't add up. Members of Congress and attorneys for the plaintiffs said there could be as many as 94,000 potential claimants for the $1.25 billion Pigford II settlement, but the U.S. Census Bureau reports that from 1981 to 1996, the number of African American farmers peaked at 33,000. As noted, more than 15,000 of them already have received settlements under Pigford I.

"How is it possible that (Agriculture) Secretary (Tom) Vilsack can identify 94,000 ‘victims’ of USDA discrimination against black farmers from a total universe of only 18,000 black farmers?" King asked on Friday.

"The original USDA estimate predicted that 3,000 of 18,000 black farmers would file a discrimination claim (under Pigford II). Now, Tom Vilsack and (Attorney General) Eric Holder have taken it upon themselves to negotiate a $1.15 billion agreement in Pigford II with the anonymous representatives of a universe of anonymous claimants that has swelled to 94,000. When added to the tab of the Pigford I settlement, this new $1.15 billion agreement brings the total taxpayer funded Pigford payout to $2.3 billion."

King also sees Pigford II as a boon to lawyers:

"We do not have the list of all the attorneys who are collecting commissions as part of these settlements, but we do have video footage of one of them admitting that 10% of his clients are frauds. Despite this, Secretary Vilsack asserts there are only three cases of fraud in the 94,000 -- yet the USDA has not identified, let alone disciplined, a single employee who discriminated against even one of these 94,000.

"We’ve all heard the expression 'victimless crime', but now we have 'crimeless victims' –- individuals who, without basis for a grievance, claim to be victims even though no one can be identified as having discriminated against them.”

Also see:
No More Taxpayer Money to Settle ‘Fraudulent’ Pigford II Claims, Republican Says

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