Hope, worry about settlement of discrimination suit with black farmers

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010; A22

Now that black farmers have reached a new settlement in their massive discrimination lawsuit against the federal government, other minorities and female farmers are watching the case closely in hopes of getting similar grievances addressed.

Congress has yet to come up with $1.15 billion to fulfill the agreement black farmers reached last week with the Agriculture and Justice departments. It has set aside $100 million as an initial payout of what is known as the Pigford case.

In anticipation of the settlement, President Obama asked for the $1.15 billion in his budget request this month. The agreement is years in coming, and congressional leaders generally support the move. But the House Appropriations Committee has just begun looking at the White House's request, and there is no timetable for approving the money.

"We don't have a timetable . . . but we are hopeful that we can, once and for all, clear the deck of all of this," said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). "I can tell you without any fear of contradiction that this is probably one of the most substantive cases ever brought against the federal government."

Clyburn, who ran the South Carolina Commission for Farm Workers in the 1960s, said he saw the kind of discrimination against minority farmers that gave the Agriculture Department the nickname "last plantation."

On the Senate side, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) thinks the settlement is long overdue and "is hopeful the matter can be resolved legislatively in the very near future," said spokesman Jim Manley.

As many as 70,000 black farmers are anticipating the payout and want Congress to move quickly. Under the settlement, farmers can walk away from the deal if Congress does not appropriate the money by March 31, although officials involved have said they think they could secure an extension if necessary.

USDA spokesman Justin DeJong said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has called members of Congress and sent a letter to Capitol Hill.

"There is certainly cause for worry" that the budget request will not be approved, said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who supports the appropriation. Last year, the Obama administration asked Congress for $1.25 billion to settle the case, but the money was not appropriated. Now, pay-as-you-go spending rules could complicate matters by forcing Congress to find ways to come up with the money without adding to the federal deficit.

Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) is hopeful about a rapid response. "We owe the money," he said. "We'll have to pay the bill. The fact that it went on so long was regrettable, and sometimes when you let things go on so long, the costs run up."

The Pigford case originally was settled in 1999 for $1 billion after 16,000 black farmers said they had been unfairly denied farm loans because of their race. Other minority groups -- women, Native Americans and Hispanics -- sued the USDA about the same time. Each group has begun talks with the government.

-- Female farmers, who filed suit against the USDA in the Love case, have 10 plaintiffs and thousands of declarations from farmers who say they were discriminated against because of gender. Their lawsuit was not certified as a class action in federal court, but lawyers in the case hope that Congress will intervene the way it did for black farmers. In December, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced the Equality for Women Farmers Act, which would force the government to resolve its discrimination claims. So far, no hearings have been scheduled for the bill.

-- Hispanic farmers have had settlement meetings with the USDA but are frustrated. As with the female farmers, their case -- Garcia v. Vilsack -- was not certified as a class action. They say the department's Farm Service Agency denied or delayed their loans and in some cases caused Hispanic farmers and ranchers to lose their land.

"We don't begrudge the well-deserved justice that black farmers have received, but . . . we have suffered exactly the same discrimination," said their attorney, Stephen S. Hill. He estimates that thousands of Hispanic farmers have been affected.

-- Joe Sellers, lead attorney for the Native American farmers in the Keepseagle case, said their court proceedings have been put on hold while they negotiate with the USDA. Sellers estimates that tens of thousands of Native American farmers have been affected by discriminatory practices.

The Keepseagle case was certified as a class-action lawsuit. Because of that, any settlement between Native American farmers and the government would not be contingent on congressional approval, Sellers said.

"It's been more than 10 years, and up to this point, there hasn't been a whole lot done," said Porter Holder, a Native American cattle rancher in Soper, Okla., who is a part of the lawsuit. "The Obama administration and Secretary Vilsack are acting aggressively, but so far the talk to the Native American is cheap."

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