By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010; A01
The Obama administration announced a $1.25 billion settlement Thursday to resolve charges by thousands of black farmers who say that for decades the Agriculture Department discriminated against them in loan programs.
Cabinet officials exhorted Congress to approve the deal by setting aside money for the farmers, who have fought through three administrations to secure a measure of justice. In the starkest cases, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, farmers lost their property after local administrators slow-pedaled loan applications, leaving them unable to plant key crops.
The agreement is part of a wider effort by Obama and senior officials to dispense with lawsuits stemming from America's checkered civil rights legacy. In December, the Justice Department led efforts to settle a long-standing case with Native Americans who accuse the federal government of mismanaging royalty payments for natural resources mined on tribal lands. A settlement is awaiting congressional action.
Vilsack and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. took a personal interest in striking a deal with the black farmers, whose leaders have appeared regularly in the halls of Congress and in the White House. Vilsack predicted that Congress will approve the settlement.
"I'm going to focus all my time and resources on making that happen," he told reporters Thursday. "The president is prepared to indicate that it's a priority not just for his administration but for the country."
In a statement, Obama applauded the Cabinet members for "bringing these long-ignored claims of African American farmers to a rightful conclusion."
The government paid $1 billion to settle a related case with 16,000 black farmers in 1999, but notification and communication errors led to some farmers being omitted from that settlement.
The agreement announced Thursday would provide cash payments and debt relief to farmers who applied too late to participate in the earlier settlement. Authorities say they are not certain how many farmers might apply this time, but analysts following the dispute say the number could be higher than 70,000.
Under the terms of the settlement, which also requires the approval of a federal judge, farmers can walk away if Congress does not act by March 31. Officials involved in the agreement, however, said they think they could secure an extension if necessary.
Farmers can apply through a streamlined process if they wish to submit claims for up to $50,000, or they can complete a more detailed claim that could result in a larger payment. The payout to each farmer would depend on how many people make claims, said Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli.
John W. Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, which has been lobbying for an agreement, said: "There's a huge trust factor that has been broken. The $50,000 will not put a farmer who has lost his farm back on his land, but it will help them have some comfort in their final years."
Since black farmers first filed the lawsuit, known as the Pigford case, in 1997, Hispanic farmers, women and Native Americans have also sued the government, based on alleged widespread discrimination in awarding agriculture loans and subsidies. Advocates for those farmers are expected to lobby Congress to be included in the new Pigford settlement in the weeks ahead, analysts said.
The USDA's relationship with minorities has been fraught for decades. Nearly eight years ago, black farmers took over a regional office in Brownsville, Tenn., to protest the agency's pace in processing their loan applications. Under the Bush administration, the agriculture secretary appointed a civil rights director, a practice that continues in the Obama era.
Administration officials said Thursday that the outlines of the settlement had met with bipartisan support, particularly from lawmakers from agricultural districts. But House appropriators, who would be the first to act on the measure, said they needed more time to review the settlement before offering solid predictions as to its fate.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said she was encouraged by the settlement, which could provide the most help to farmers in Southern communities. "Over the past 20 years, the number of farms operated by black farmers has declined by nearly 50 percent," Lee said. "In part, this decrease was caused by a lack of access to loans and other assistance which were provided to other farmers."
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), also a member of the caucus, said: "This settlement is a case where justice delayed will no longer be justice denied. . . . History has taught us to never give up when fighting for what is right. What happened to these black farmers was wrong, and we now have the opportunity to make it right."
Staff writers Krissah Thompson and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.