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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

USDA to review racism complaints

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday vowed to improve civil rights at the U.S. Agriculture Department, which has been hit by more than 14,000 complaints about racial discrimination since 2000.

The USDA, which has a long history of civil rights complaints from some farmers denied access to USDA benefits, has yet to review about 3,000 of them, said Vilsack, who acknowledged "questions continue to be raised about USDA's handling of complaints.

"There have been unresolved claims. There have been a backlog of claims. I want to close the book on all of those claims," Vilsack told the North American Agricultural Journalists.

"I want to make sure that we do everything we possibly can in the future not to have this magnitude of problems we've had for the last 20 years. It's time to get it past us," he said.

Vilsack said he will be creating a task force to review civil rights complaints lodged since 2000.

The department also is suspending all foreclosures within USDA's Farm Service Agency's farm loan program for 90 days to help financially strapped farmers and to review loans for possible discrimination.

A landmark multimillion-dollar settlement was reached in 1999 after black farmers said USDA unfairly denied their applications for USDA loan and benefit programs and failed to investigate complaints of bias. USDA so far has paid out about $1 billion to compensate black farmers.

(Reporting by Christopher Doering and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Christian Wiessner)

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CBC upset over Obama’s stance on black farmers

By Kevin Bogardus, Posted: 04/23/09

Black lawmakers are roiled over the Obama administration’s move to potentially cap billions of dollars in compensation owed to black farmers, saying the position contradicts legislation the president championed as an Illinois senator.

In a meeting Wednesday, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) vented frustration at recent court filings by the Justice Department that could severely limit compensation owed to black farmers discriminated against in the past by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Justice Department has estimated that it could cost as much as $4 billion to repay the farmers, yet the recent filings suggest it may cap the total compensation at $100 million — about 2.5 percent.

The black lawmakers decided to request a meeting between administration officials and caucus representatives as soon as possible to discuss the filings.

“At a minimum, the CBC should meet with the Obama administration and clarify this filing,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

“What will happen — should happen — is the Justice Department, the [Agriculture] Department should sit down with representatives of the CBC,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.).

At stake are billions of dollars in compensation owed to black farmers whose applications for loans and credit were denied by USDA officials. Those discriminated against won a historic agreement with the federal government in 1999, known as the Pigford settlement, wherein authorities agreed to compensate black farmers for USDA’s past prejudices.

But thousands of farmers missed the filing deadline to apply for compensation. Since then, black lawmakers have sought to reopen the lawsuit and allow those farmers who missed the deadline to re-file claims for compensation.

They triumphed last year when they added a $100 million fund to the Farm Bill that would begin to pay back late filers to the Pigford settlement. On Capitol Hill, Obama and others, including Thompson and Davis, fought for the fund to be included in the legislation, which was key in securing CBC support for the Farm Bill.

Lawmakers intended the fund to be a down payment on compensation for black farmers and planned to add more money to the fund when needed. Estimates have 65,000 black farmers planning to file late claims for compensation under Pigford, which would result in at least $50,000 in payments and $12,500 in tax breaks for each filer. A February filing by the Justice Department estimates about $4 billion would be needed to pay back all the farmers.

“It is not a cap in the real sense,” Davis said. “It was intended as a starting point.”

“At no point was that $100 million intended to be a cap,” Thompson said. “It was a beginning.”

But in recent court filings, the Justice Department has said it cannot disburse more than $100 million to farmers who were discriminated against.

Until Congress eliminates the funding cap, the administration cannot pay out any more, argued Justice lawyers. The fact that the Pigford language in the Farm Bill allows Congress to authorize more money if necessary does not change Justice’s analysis.

That could leave black farmers who were discriminated against with much less compensation than expected, about $1,500 in payments. CBC members believe Obama should stick to his bill, which he introduced as standalone legislation in August 2007 before adding it to the Farm Bill in the Senate.

“He should remain consistent with his legislation,” said Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). “With the background of this president and his legal knowledge, I’m sure they will take another look at this.”

Supporters of Obama’s presidential campaign argued the then-Illinois senator’s move to resolve late Pigford claims would endear him to Southern black voters during the tough Democratic primary race against former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). At the time of the bill’s introduction in 2007, Obama was finding his footing as a candidate and polls suggested he was struggling to attract black voters. He later won almost unanimously among this group against Clinton and then in the general election against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Now Obama may have to face off with several of his own campaign supporters over how best to compensate discrimination claims by black farmers. Clay, Davis and Thompson endorsed Obama during the presidential primaries.

“The president has been a leader on this issue since his days as a U.S. senator and is deeply committed to closing this painful chapter in our history,” said Kenneth Baer, communications director for the Office of Management and Budget, in a statement.

In addition, John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA), is hosting a rally on the National Mall next Tuesday to protest the Justice Department’s court filings.

“We were hoping this measure was going to be a priority for this administration,” Boyd said. “He made those commitments on the campaign trail. We hope the president would take a look at this and help us find a solution to this problem.”

On the NBFA’s website, Boyd is pictured shaking hands with Obama. Having briefed the then-senator about the issue as early as 2005, the trade association president lobbied him to introduce the bill and was rumored to be a potential Agriculture secretary for the administration.

But now he is on Capitol Hill this week lobbying Congress, “trying to shake loose some funds from lawmakers to help the black farmers,” Boyd said.

The NBFA could expect to find backing from black lawmakers, some of whom planned to request more funds to compensate the discrimination claims during the appropriations process this summer.

“It is something that needs to be done. We should have the support of some members,” Davis said.

The Obama administration has begun to reach out to black lawmakers to soothe concerns over the court filings.

“We have been in touch with the administration and they are trying to right the ship as soon as possible,” said an aide to a key CBC member.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has made correcting the civil-rights wrongs by USDA a priority. In a memo sent to USDA employees Tuesday, Vilsack said the department would work with Justice to resolve late Pigford claims “fairly and expeditiously.”

“We agree more needs to be done not only on this particular issue but on civil rights in general. We are working internally at USDA as well as with the Department of Justice to ensure that people are treated fairly,” Vilsack said in a statement.

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