Congress of Black Farm Organizations (CBFO) Ag May Add Black Farmers to Subsidy Panels
Rally at USDA & Congressional Hearing
September 28, 2004
Tuesday, September 28, 2004 8:48 PM Eastern Time
Ira Dreyfuss, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON – The Agriculture Department plans to put more black farmers on the committees that have oversight in how federal farm subsidies are allocated.
The increase in black voters on the committees should happen soon after the November election, Vernon Parker, the department's top civil rights official, said Tuesday.
Parker spoke on a street outside the department's headquarters while about 75 demonstrators rallied against what they saw as the department's continuing refusal to rectify a history of discrimination. The department has settled one major class-action discrimination suit and faces the possibility of another.
The planned expansion of minority participation focuses on county committees elected by farmers. The committees review eligibility for programs administered by the Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency.
The department's plan is a step in the right direction, said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, but is "a dime too late." If the change had been made a decade or more ago, "it could have saved a lot of black farmers," he said.
Black farmers contend that white-dominated panels of three to five members in many counties have used their power to force the foreclosure of many black farms, which then are purchased by whites.
The committee system is undergoing "a severe overhaul," said Parker. The department announced plans to change the committee structure in August.
The department currently has the option of appointing nonvoting minority members to county committees if farmers do not elect them to voting seats on the panels. Under the proposed changes, the department could independently nominate members from minority groups to run for voting seats. It also could appoint voting members from minority groups to the committees if none run or win election, said Ed Loyd, a department spokesman.
Placing minority group members on the committees would be an option if, for instance, a committee has been the target of bias complaints, Loyd said.
Speakers during Tuesday's demonstration also accused the department of obstructing the process through which claims are paid under a landmark discrimination class action settlement in 1999.
In that case, black farmers complained they were denied loans and other assistance because of a pattern of discrimination. A new federal lawsuit contends discrimination has continued since the last settlement, and seeks class action status on behalf of 25,000 blacks who farmed or attempted to farm between 1997 and 2004.
At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, lawmakers said the 1999 class action settlement did not help most of the farmers in the class. About 65,000 black farmers were excluded because they did not file claims in time, said subcommittee chairman Steve Chabot, R-Ohio.
"We cannot in good conscience allow a settlement that leaves out more potential claimants than it allows in to go unexamined or remain unresolved," Chabot said.
Court-appointed administrators of the settlement countered that their hands were tied by the settlement's own restrictions. To qualify for an extension, farmers had to show they were delayed by extraordinary circumstances such as a hurricane or serious illness, and most could not, said Michael J. Lewis, the settlement's arbitrator.
Congress could pass a law to let the excluded farmers try again for restitution from the Agriculture Department, said Alexander Pires, the class action's lead lawyer. But if he asked the court simply to change the terms of the settlement, the department would object, he said.
Scripps Howard News Service
Black farmers call for changes in settlement with USDA
Tuesday, September 28, 2004
WASHINGTON – A congressional panel Tuesday heard testimony that the historic 1999 settlement of black farmers' claims of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is so seriously flawed that it demands to be reopened and resolved.
More than 65,000 potential claimants were shut out of the process under terms of a consent decree that denies black farmers an opportunity to prove claims, Phillip J. Haynie II, a fourth generation Virginia farmer, told the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution.
Black farmers have complained since the settlement was entered into that the process was flawed. The Agriculture Department acknowledged a past history of discrimination and agreed to a two-tiered process of resolving claims. For both, claimants needed to prove that a similarly situated white farmer was treated better than they were, and many had trouble acquiring evidence from USDA or local officials to establish unfair treatment.
The Environmental Working Group, a nonpartisan Washington think tank that studies farm and environmental policies, made headlines in July when it released a report noting that nearly 40 percent of the approximately 23,000 farmers who were part of the settlement class had had their claims denied.
The EWG report also pointed out that of another 65,948 black farmers who sought entry into the class after word of the settlement spread, more than 63,800 were denied, mainly for not filing by court-imposed deadlines. It said the Department of Justice ran up 55,712 staff hours reviewing the claims.
An EWG lawyer, Arianne Callender, had been invited to testify before the panel Tuesday but her live testimony was cancelled Monday, bringing charges by EWG and the Memphis, Tenn.-based Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association that panel members would hear mainly a defense of the settlement by lawyers involved in administering it. But three minutes before the hearing got under way, a revised statement from Chairman Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, was circulated indicting another hearing, with some of the absent witnesses, will be held.
Chabot reviewed the history of black farming in America and said that the hearing had been called because, "in an ironic twist, the process that was created to provide a forum for those whose claims had been shut out, has itself shut out nearly two-thirds of all who wanted to have their discrimination claims heard.
"We cannot in good conscience allow a settlement that leaves out more potential claimants than it allows in to go unexamined or remain unresolved," he said.
Subcommittee ranking member Robert C. Scott, D-Va., said he was concerned about the adequacy of a settlement process that has left 70 percent of claimants without a determination on the merits of their claim.
Besides Haynie, the panel heard from Alexander Pires Jr., lead counsel of a team of lawyers who sued USDA; Randi Ilyse Roth, the court-appointed monitor of the case; and Michael K. Lewis, the court-appointed arbitrator of claims.
Roth said that, of the class members, 61 percent prevailed in their initial claims and that roughly 50 percent are prevailing with ongoing claims. About 13,500 claimants so far have been paid $831 million.
A group of black pastors, all in red ties, and the mayor of Jericho, Ark., attended the packed hearing after gathering Sunday night at the Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., and riding a bus to the nation's capital.
The Rev. James Perry of the Christian Fellowship Baptist Church outside Crawfordsville, Ark., said he wanted to attend the session because, for generations, his family has been treated unfairly by the USDA. He was a plaintiff in the class action suit.
"Every year at settlement time they'd say, 'Boy, you almost got out of debt.' That's what we'd be told every year," the 67-year-old Perry said before the hearing.
Jericho Mayor Helen Adams said her husband farmed in Crittenden County and sought entry into the lawsuit but died before he could perfect a claim.
"When I called back, they said they had closed it out," Adams said. "I'd like to see it opened."
(E-mail email@example.com or visit www.shns.com.)