Native American farmers and ranchers press USDA on bias complaints

By Kari Lydersen
Friday, July 30, 2010

Native Americans who have sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture alleging discrimination say they, like many African Americans, were taken aback by the agency's hasty firing of a black mid-level official last week after she was falsely accused of racism.

Shirley Sherrod was quickly vindicated, receiving apologies from the agency and the White House -- and an offer of a new job from Secretary Tom Vilsack. Though Sherrod has yet to say whether she will accept the offer, she said at the National Association of Black Journalists conference in San Diego on Thursday that she plans to sue Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger who posted the misleading video that led to her troubles.

On the heels of the incident, Native American farmers and ranchers say the USDA has failed to address their complaints.

Vilsack has promised that the agency will investigate the allegations, and it did reopen thousands of discrimination complaints that George W. Bush's administration had dismissed. But Indian farmers say offenses have continued since 1999, when they filed a class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination in USDA farm loans from 1981 to 1999.

The case, Keepseagle v. Vilsack, is similar to the Pigford class-action lawsuit brought by black farmers, which resulted in a settlement of about $2 billion. Plaintiffs in the Keepseagle case reported loan officers calling them "injuns" and other slurs and say they rarely saw any evidence

of reprimands or investigations. Their frustrations echoed the observations of some black farmers who made similar observations last week that other USDA officials had not faced repercussions.

Porter Holder, a Choctaw rancher and rodeo champion in southeastern Oklahoma, said he is disturbed that a USDA loan officer he complained about in the late 1990s is still on the job. In the Great Plains, Native American farmers say they have complained repeatedly about another veteran loan officer in the USDA's Sidney, Mont., office who was involved in a recent confrontation that included the police.

Loan officer Patrick Turner was arrested after the Feb. 23 incident, which occurred while he appraised the ranch of Roy "Tony" Anderson, a member of the Sioux tribe who lives on the Fort Peck reservation. In a police statement, Turner acknowledged hitting one of Anderson's neighbors, who he said blocked the door to his truck. Under a deferred prosecution agreement, the charge was dismissed July 16.

Turner and a spokesman for the USDA in Montana declined to comment on Turner's arrest or past discrimination complaints. Another spokesman for the agency said criminal charges and complaints against employees are routinely reviewed.

Other farmers say they have pursued action against Turner. Ernie Bighorn said that in February 1999 he filed a civil rights complaint with Montana's USDA office alleging that Turner discriminated against him when he sought a USDA loan. Bighorn also filed a complaint with USDA civil rights investigators.

The USDA farm loan program is meant as a source of financing of last resort for small farmers and ranchers, including minorities, who have been unable to secure private funds. The USDA both makes direct loans itself and guarantees bank loans.

In 1997, the USDA held listening sessions around the country at which hundreds of minority and female farmers and ranchers complained about discrimination. During the Bush administration, funding for civil rights investigation and enforcement within the USDA was gutted and investigations were conducted only by phone, according to a USDA spokesman. Starting in May 2009, the agency under Vilsack reexamined 11,000 out of 14,000 complaints filed between 2000 and 2008, of which only a small number were sustained.

The review identified 3,800 complaints that could have merit, but the statute of limitations on most had passed. Legislation is being developed to extend the statute of limitations for these cases. The USDA currently has 14 field investigators and six adjudicators dealing with civil rights complaints, the agency says.

Anderson, 48, said he received his first USDA-guaranteed loan in 1994. After several tough years, last year he sold nearly all his cattle to meet loan payments. The cattle didn't fetch the expected price, and the bank initiated foreclosure proceedings.

When Turner visited the ranch to assess its value, Anderson said, he told Turner that he wanted an attorney present. A confrontation ensued with one of Anderson's neighbors.

Rancher Lucille Holen, who lives on the Fort Peck reservation, contends that Turner threatened her 14-year-old son, James Holen, during a Feb. 9 appraisal. Holen said Turner has accused the family of hiding cattle that may be collateral for a USDA loan.

"He was yelling at me, calling me a thief," James Holen said. "He had his finger in my face, his other hand was clenched in a fist."

Lucille Holen said she complained to Turner's supervisor. Lawyers in the Keepseagle case and local ranchers say many Native American ranchers think Turner has intentionally made it difficult for Native Americans to get loans. (Bighorn's complaint against Turner is part of the Keepseagle lawsuit, but more recent complaints are not.)

USDA spokesman Justin DeJong said: "Secretary Vilsack is committed to resolving allegations of past discrimination at the department quickly and fairly because it is time to move past this unfortunate chapter of USDA's history. USDA leadership takes any and all claims of discrimination seriously and takes disciplinary action when necessary."

The government and plaintiffs' attorneys have been in active settlement negotiations on the suit, and Thursday both sides filed a motion asking for a week's extension -- until Aug. 5 -- to report their progress to the court.

-- Special to The Washington Post

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