THE NATION, By Jia Lynn Yang, Times Staff Writer, July 22, 2004 WASHINGTON - Tens of thousands of black farmers have yet to see any of the compensation promised them by the U.S. Department of Agriculture five years ago in one of the federal government's largest-ever racial bias settlements, according to a report released this week by a public interest watchdog group.
A two-year probe by the Environmental Working Group and the National Black Farmers Assn. found that the government had denied restitution to 81,000 out of 94,000 black farmers who sought compensation. The farmers, who were seeking payments for unequal treatment when they applied for loan programs and other aid, agreed to the settlement in 1999.
Now, some black farmers are taking their case to Congress.
"These people are not in trouble because they're dumb," said James Morrison, counsel for United Farmers USA, a group started with the intent of seeing through the 1999 settlement. "These people aren't in trouble because they're lazy. They're in trouble because they're not getting the support they need ... from not just the USDA, but their government."
Under the class-action settlement, black farmers alleging racial bias from 1981 to 1996 could pursue compensation by one of two tracks. The first, a "fast track," entitled any farmer who presented minimal documentation to receive $50,000. The other required something like a smaller-scale civil trial with no cap on an award, which would be based on actual damages.
The report, released Tuesday, found that of those who pursued the "fast track," 40% were denied compensation. Of the 173 who pursued the second process, only 18 prevailed after a hearing.
Most of the farmers' claims were denied, the report said, because they were filed after the original deadline, even though the court established a late claims period. Other farmers were told they did not have sufficient documentation.
The report alleged, and some black farmers concurred, that the USDA refused to hand over information claimants needed to make their cases. In particular, claimants needed proof that a "similarly situated" white farmer had received greater federal assistance - information that was far from public knowledge.
"The farmers not only had their hands tied behind their backs, they had a pair of handcuffs as well," said Hezekiah Gibson, president of United Farmers USA. "It was extraordinarily difficult - in some cases impossible - for the farmers to get the evidence they needed to satisfy the standard that was put in."
Thus far, the federal government has awarded $657 million to 13,151 claimants and forgiven $20 million in loans. Some vetting process for claimants had to be in place, said Vernon B. Parker, assistant secretary of Agriculture for civil rights. "Can you imagine if there were no process to evaluate a person's claim?" Parker said. "The government would be completely broke.... If someone claims discrimination, there has to be some sort of process to determine if discrimination actually occurred."
But many black farmers, calling the government's methods draconian, said the USDA and lawyers from the Department of Justice had fought them every step of the way.
Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said he could not comment on ongoing litigation. But Parker said the USDA was not involved in the decision-making for which claimants received money. John Boyd Jr., president of the Black Farmers Assn., is now looking for support from the Congressional Black Caucus. He met with Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) on Tuesday to discuss how Congress might intervene to help rejected claimants, in particular the 9,000 rejected in the "fast
track" and the 64,000 rejected for being late, even though they filed within the court-established late claims period.
When black farmers filed their class-action lawsuit in 1997, Grassley helped pass legislation extending a statute of limitations that would have derailed the farmers' case.