Senate approves $4.5B payment to Native Americans, black farmers

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 12:42 AM

After months of hang-ups, the Senate unanimously approved Friday two multibillion-dollar settlements that will rectify long-standing claims against the federal government for discrimination and mismanagement.

The vote essentially brings closure to the two cases, which have each been litigated for more than a decade.

The House, which has twice endorsed the deals, must still do so one more time, an action that is expected after Thanksgiving. Senate approval, however, has been a huge hurdle for Native Americans, who sued the government over poorly handled individual Indians' trust accounts, and black farmers, who were for years unfairly refused loans by the Agriculture Department.

"Black farmers and Native American trust account holders have had to wait a long time for justice, but now it will finally be served," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement after the vote. "I am heartened that Democrats and Republicans were able to come together to deliver the settlement that these men and women deserve for the discrimination and mismanagement they faced in the past."

Native Americans involved in the land trust lawsuit will get access to a $3.4 billion fund. Black farmers who are a part of a class-action lawsuit against the USDA will receive a $1.15 billion settlement.

"It's long, long overdue," said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. "Many farmers have died waiting for justice. Hopefully, we can get this money to those who are living."

Boyd's group has lobbied for years, even staging tractor protests on Capitol Hill, to get Congress to fund the settlement, which is expected to resolve the claims of tens of thousands of black farmers.

The Native American land trust case, whose lead plaintiff is Elouise Cobell, resolves complaints by 300,000 Native Americans who found that the government had grossly mismanaged royalty payments for natural resources mined on tribal lands. The case wound through hundreds of motions, seven trials, dozens of rulings and appeals before a settlement was reached in December.

Cobell's lawyer, Dennis M. Gingold, praised Republicans and Democrats for working together to approve the deal. "No one would have expected this could have been done," Gingold said. "In this environment, with the difficult elections we just had, most people would have thought this would have been impossible."

The Obama administration has put a focus on settling such civil rights issues. Last month, Native American farmers reached a separate settlement with the government over USDA discrimination claims. Hispanic farmers and women farmers, who have similar claims, are still in negotiations with the Justice Department and USDA officials.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack called Friday's Senate vote "a major milestone in USDA's efforts to turn the page on a sad chapter in our history. . . . President Obama and I pledged not only to treat all farmers fairly and equally, but to right the wrongs of the past for farmers who faced discrimination."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department had been mired in the trust litigation, said the vote was another step toward bringing resolution to the highly contentious land trust lawsuit. "The progress we have made over the last two years in reaching critical Indian country settlements is unprecedented," he said.

The White House issued a statement urging the House to also pass legislation funding the settlements, and Obama said he looks forward to signing them into law.

"While these legislative achievements reflect important progress, they also serve to remind us that much work remains to be done," Obama said. "That is why my administration also continues to work to resolve claims of past discrimination made by women and Hispanic farmers against the USDA."

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