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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama to propose $1.25B for black farmers

By BEN EVANS – May 6, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is proposing that the government provide $1.25 billion to settle discrimination claims by black farmers against the Agriculture Department.

The White House said the money would be included in the president's 2010 budget request to be unveiled Thursday.

Obama had taken criticism earlier this year from black farmers and lawmakers who said the federal government was neglecting the need for more money to fund claims under a decade-old class-action lawsuit against the government.

In a statement, Obama said the proposed settlement funds would "close this chapter" in the agency's history and allow it to move on.

"My hope is that the farmers and their families who were denied access to USDA loans and programs will be made whole and will have the chance to rebuild their lives and their businesses," he said.

John Boyd, who has spearheaded the litigation as head of the National Black Farmers Association and has been particularly critical of Obama recently, called the proposal a "step in the right direction."

But he said more money would be needed.

"We think this is a good step in the negotiating process. We're glad to know this issue is on the president's radar screen and we commend him for taking this step," he said. But "we need to make sure that none of the black farmers are left out."

At issue is the class-action Pigford lawsuit, named after Timothy Pigford, a black farmer from North Carolina who was among the original plaintiffs. Thousands of farmers sued USDA claiming they had for years been denied government loans and other assistance that routinely went to whites. The government settled in 1999 and has paid out nearly $1 billion in damages on almost 16,000 claims.

Since then, other farmers have pushed to reopen the case because they missed deadlines for filing. Many said they didn't know that damages were available.

Last year, Congress passed a proposal sponsored by then-Sen. Obama and others to give more farmers a chance at a settlement. But the measure included a budget of only $100 million — far short of what is likely needed. With an estimated 65,000 additional claims, some estimate the case could cost the government another $2 billion or $3 billion.

While Obama's proposal represents a marked shift from the Bush administration, which had fought paying new claims, it was unclear how the plan might be received on Capitol Hill. Many lawmakers think the payments should not be capped and that the government should pay however much it costs to resolve successful claims.

Earlier this week, Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., introduced legislation that would allow access to an unlimited judgment fund at the Department of Treasury to pay successful claims

"I don't know other fields of litigation where there's a limit on the payments," Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., said Wednesday, speaking before the White House announced the proposal.

Most claimants in the original case opted to seek expedited payments that required a relatively low burden of proof. The payments were $50,000 plus $12,500 in tax breaks.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Black Caucus Questions Obama About Farmers

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is not happy about President Barack Obama's recent move potentially to stem billions of dollars owed to Black farmers.

President Barack Obama The Caucus recently requested an audience with the president's officials after learning of a Justice Department filing by Obama's administration that would prevent farmers who suffered discrimination from collecting up to $4 billion. The court action would top possible compensation at $100 million because it contradicts legislation Obama pushed while he was a senator.

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

The Black workers in question won a historic agreement with the federal government in 1999 after their applications for loans and credit had been rejected by the United States Department of Agriculture. 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 Obama and other lawmakers came to the aid of some who missed the filing deadline to receive compensation. The lawmakers were successful in adding a $100 million fund to the bill that would compensate the denied land-workers. Called the Pigford settlement, the Caucus supported the effort.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bill boosts pending farmer discrimination claims

By MARY CLARE JALONICK, Associated Press Writer, May 5, 2009

WASHINGTON - African American farmers with pending discrimination claims against the Department of Agriculture could collect higher settlements if a new bill becomes law.

Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican, and North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, introduced legislation Tuesday that would allow access to an unlimited judgment fund at the Department of Treasury to pay successful claims. Law enacted last year would provide only $100 million for the farmers, though the claims could cost up to $3 billion.

The government settled a class action lawsuit filed by black farmers in 1999 and has paid out nearly $1 billion in damages. Thousands of farmers from around the country said they were denied government loans and other assistance that went to white farmers.

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Black Caucus Questions Obama About Farmers

By BET.com

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is not happy about President Barack Obama's recent move potentially to stem billions of dollars owed to Black farmers.

President Barack Obama The Caucus recently requested an audience with the president's officials after learning of a Justice Department filing by Obama's administration that would prevent farmers who suffered discrimination from collecting up to $4 billion. The court action would top possible compensation at $100 million because it contradicts legislation Obama pushed while he was a senator.

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

The Black workers in question won a historic agreement with the federal government in 1999 after their applications for loans and credit had been rejected by the United States Department of Agriculture. 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 Obama and other lawmakers came to the aid of some who missed the filing deadline to receive compensation. The lawmakers were successful in adding a $100 million fund to the bill that would compensate the denied land-workers. Called the Pigford settlement, the Caucus supported the effort.

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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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USDA to review racism complaints

Wed Apr 22, 2009

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)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Black Contractors File Bias Suit Against Toyota

Los Angeles Sentinel, News Report, Denise Stewart, Posted: Apr 27, 2009

Fish & Fisher, a black-owned general contractor in Jackson, Mississippi, hauled more than 1 million cubic tons of dirt to make way for a new Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., and also helped expand the Jackson-Evers International Airport.

But when it came time to hand out the big contracts for construction of a new Toyota plant in Blue Springs, Mississippi in 2007, Fish & Fisher says it was left out of the process.

Fish & Fisher has filed a federal lawsuit in Mississippi, claiming racial discrimination in the bid process for the Toyota plant. The company is seeking unspecified damages in the suit that also names as defendants Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and the Mississippi Development Authority.

The company got a $6 million chunk of the site preparation work as a subcontractor while the general contractor for the job, L&T Construction, got a total of $49 million. That company originally partnered with another contractor to win the bid, but that partnership later dissolved, according to the court filing.

Owners of Fish & Fisher say minority-owned companies were excluded from the process.

“If we had had an opportunity, we absolutely would have bid on the project, but we weren’t given that opportunity,” Fish & Fisher co-owner Jacqueline Williams told BlackAmericaweb.com. “They invited only five companies to bid. At a time when the state gave $300 million in incentives to bring the plant to Mississippi, they still only allowed certain insiders to bid.”

Toyota calls the claims in the lawsuit “baseless” and said it will “vigorously defend this case.”

Company spokeswoman Barbara McDaniel told BlackAmericaweb.com that the pool of bidders on the job was limited because of the size and scope of the project.

To bid as general contractor, a company must have annual sales four times above the value of the Toyota project, McDaniel said.

Williams said Fish & Fisher met the requirements for minority company participation with Toyota because it is certified by the National Minority Supplier Development Council.

Byron Perkins, a Birmingham, Alabama lawyer representing Fish & Fisher, said the exclusion of that company from the bid process is something that happens all too often to black-owned businesses.

“This practice is still rampant, and it’s time for it to stop,” Perkins told BlackAmericaweb.com.

Toyota defends its record with minority business.

"To date, more than $40 million has been spent with minority contractors for the Toyota Mississippi project, which actually exceeds our goal of 15 percent spending with minority contractors,” McDaniel said. “Toyota’s track record nationally, as well as in Mississippi for awarding business to MBEs (minority business enterprises), speaks for itself.”

McDaniel said Toyota is one of only 14 companies in the United States to be a member of the Billion Dollar Roundtable, a designation given to companies who spend at least $1 billion annually with diverse suppliers and demonstrate a strong overall commitment to supplier diversity.

Since the project was announced, the Toyota plant in Blue Springs, near Tupelo in northeast Mississippi, was anticipated as a boost for the state’s sagging economy.

Industry reports say the plant was originally projected to hire 2,000 people to make 150,000 Toyota Highlander SUVs annually. The total cost of the project was expected to top $1 billion.

Last year, plans for the plant changed, and the company decided to produce the Prius at the new Mississippi plant. The slow economy has since placed those plans on hold, company officials say.
The main building for the plant has been completed, but it has not been equipped for production, McDaniel said. About 100 people currently work there in administrative offices, she said.

Williams, who co-owns Fish & Fisher partner Renna Fisher, said minority-owned companies continue to get only small portions of contracts and are prevented by an age-old system from being named general contractors on major projects in Mississippi.

The lawsuit claims there was a conspiracy to exclude minority-owned companies by having a private bidding process, depriving Fish & Fisher of their constitutional right to equal access.

Perkins, the lawyer, said they also believe Toyota erred by allowing Hernando-based L&T to keep the contract after a partnership it formed with another white-owned business dissolved shortly after the companies won the contract. The suit claims L&T didn't meet the guidelines set out for the project by Toyota and that the company was not bonded.

Perkins said argues Fish & Fisher would have had no such problems.

"This isn't a fly-by-night company," he said.