Monday, January 31, 2011

Pigford fraud and the growing scandal

One of the speakers at Americans for Prosperity's RightOnLine conference in San Diego this weekend was Andrew Breitbart, who gave us an update on the Pigford lawsuit/settlement scandal during lunch.

I took a ton of notes, but knew my friend Ed Morrissey, from was going to do a taped interview with Breitbart and thought you'd be better off hearing the story from Breitbart himself.

In case you've never heard of Pigford, it was a class-action lawsuit filed by black farmers who were discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As Breitbart explained, "Roughly 157 farmers got screwed by the USDA. They were all black. The real tragedy is the USDA's effort to get farmers into financial distress so that they lose their land and large farm conglomerates can buy them up."

The case is Pigford vs. Vilsack (Vilsack is the Secretary of the department, though it was originally Pigford vs. Glickman, then the Secretary), and Pigford I, as it's now called, was a settlement on April 14, 1999, for that case for discriminatory actions by the USDA from 1981-85. Pigford II was an extension of the time frame for the lawsuit and was signed by President Barack Obama (without fanfare and media attention as Breitbart points out) on Dec. 8, 2010.

There were about 18,000 black farmers originally impacted by the discrimination, but at the time of settlement, the government estimated the number of black farmers eligible for the $50,000 payout at 22,000.

Breitbart claims there is about 95% fraud in the settlement because, according to what Congress has passed, you didn't have to actually be a farmer and lose your land, you just had to say you 'attempted to farm' during the authorized time frame.

How did all this come to Breitbart's attention and why has he focused the last seven months on investigating it? Shirley Sherrod is to blame for that.

You may remember the big to-do when Breitbart posted a video of Sherrod telling about her own racism against white farmers. She was fired (though they called it a resignation) from her job as Georgia Director of Rural Development for the USDA (without benefit of due process Breitbart explained) and vilified for her remarks. Later, Breitbart was vilified for not putting Sherrod's entire speech on his website and there was an overwhelming demand for her to be reinstated. President Obama ended up apologizing to her and offered her an internal position within the USDA, which she declined to accept.

As part of the news coverage of the incident, many news stations and people on the left side of the political spectrum started linking this incident to the Pigford settlement that was under Congressional consideration. As Breitbart explained, he started getting emails telling him this was all about Pigford and people were saying that the White House was fearful that it might result in the Pigford settlement funding being pulled from the congressional bill. "I was then blamed for the loss of the funding for a lawsuit I didn't even know existed," he said. "They thought I was setting a trap for everyone because Sherrod and her husband and their communal farm were scheduled to get millions in the settlement."

But it made him curious as to why Sherrod needed to go so quickly, so he started looking into the matter, talking with the original parties to the suit and discovered a massive fraud that, he said, "makes Watergate look tame." And it goes all the way up to the White House as, Breitbart pointed out, President Obama was the sole sponsor of the settlement when he was in Congress.

Now, Breitbart has hired a filmmaker to do a documentary tracking down truth. "I told him, 'please take your documentary cameras and go prove we wrong.'" Breitbart said he wants to know why an effort to sign up people who claim they 'attempted' to farm is still going on today and is, as he believes, this really just "reparations gone pro." In talking about the original claimants, he said:

"The government systematically tried to get them off their land and it's a tragedy of epic proportions. They've gone, in large numbers, to tell anyone who will listen that Pickford screwed them over. Neighbors are getting rich and these farmers still don't have their land back.

I told those black farmers that I'm not going to stop until they receive their justice. They're still waiting for their justice."

TheWashington Examiner adds more details - and questions - to the issue:

The Pigford matter goes back a long way, and to say the least has a checkered history, as this May 27, 2010 item at Agri-Pulse demonstrates (bolds are mine):

As part of a April 14, 1999 class action case settlement, commonly known as the Pigford case, U.S. taxpayers have already provided over $1 billion in cash, non-credit awards and debt relief to almost 16,000 black farmers who claimed that they were discriminated against by USDA officials as they “farmed or attempted to farm.” In addition, USDA’s Farm Service Agency spent over $166 million on salaries and expenses on this case from 1999-2009, according to agency records.

Members of Congress may approve another $1.15 billion this week to settle cases from what some estimate may be an additional 80,000 African-Americans who have also claimed to have been discriminated against by USDA staff.

... Settling this case is clearly a priority for the White House and USDA. Secretary Vilsack described the funding agreement reached between the Administration and advocates for black farmers early this year as “an important milestone in putting these discriminatory claims behind us for good and in achieving finality for this group of farmers with longstanding grievances."

However, confronted with the skyrocketing federal deficit, more officials are taking a critical look at the billion dollars spent thus far and wondering when these discrimination cases will ever end. Already, the number of people who have been paid and are still seeking payment will likely exceed the 26,785 black farmers who were considered to even be operating back in 1997, according to USDA. That’s the year the case initially began as Pigford v. (then Agriculture Secretary) Glickman and sources predicted that, at most, 3,000 might qualify.

At least one source who is extremely familiar with the issue and who asked to remain anonymous because of potential retribution, says there are a number of legitimate cases who have long been denied their payments and will benefit from the additional funding. But many more appear to have been solicited in an attempt to “game” the Pigford system.

Here are just a few questions about Ms. Sherrod that deserve answers:

•Was Ms. Sherrod's USDA appointment an unspoken condition of her organization's settlement?
•How much "debt forgiveness" is involved in USDA's settlement with New Communities?
•Why were the Sherrods so deserving of a combined $300,000 in "pain and suffering" payments -- amounts that far exceed the average payout thus far to everyone else? ($1.15 billion divided by 16,000 is about $72,000)?
•Given that New Communities wound down its operations so long ago (it appears that this occurred sometime during the late 1980s), what is really being done with that $13 million in settlement money?

Here are a few bigger-picture questions:

•Did Shirley Sherrod resign so quickly because the circumstances of her hiring and the lawsuit settlement with her organization that preceded it might expose some unpleasant truths about her possible and possibly sanctioned conflicts of interest?
•Is USDA worried about the exposure of possible waste, fraud, and abuse in its handling of Pigford?
•Did USDA also dispatch Sherrod hastily because her continued presence, even for another day, might have gotten in the way of settling Pigford matters quickly?

This is a story that is just in the beginning stages of being told.

Go here for the taped interview and be sure you watch all the way through to the end.

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