Q: Did then-Sen. Barack Obama get a law “passed in dead silence” that allowed black farmers to file “unlawful” discrimination claims against the USDA totaling $1.25 billion?
A: No. Obama supported the 2008 bill, but did not sponsor it or vote on it. It was not “passed in dead silence”; there were six floor votes. All claims are pending judicial review and approval.
Could you please check this out for me and let me know if it is true or not?
Pigford vs. Glickman
“In 1997, 400 African-American farmers sued the United States Department of Agriculture, alleging that they had been unfairly denied USDA loans due to racial discrimination during the period 1983 to 1997.”
The case was entitled “Pigford vs. Glickman” and in 1999, the black farmers won their case.
The government agreed to pay each of them as much as $50,000 to settle their claims.
But then on February 23, 2010, something shocking happened in relation to that original judgment: In total silence, the USDA agreed to release more funds to “Pigford.”
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We have seen a number of viral e-mails, including this one, that inaccurately describe the circumstances surrounding the initial and final settlements of a racial discrimination suit brought against the United States Department of Agriculture.
Pigford v. Glickman was a class-action lawsuit brought in 1997. The suit, in which farmer Timothy Pigford sued then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, resulted in a court-approved agreement in 1999 to settle claims of discrimination that occurred between 1983 and 1997. But tens of thousands of black farmers missed the deadline for filing claims. Congress took testimony on complaints that inadequate notice and poor legal representation were to blame for the late claims and passed a law in 2008 that gave the late filers the right to have their cases heard on the merits. The 2008 law provided $100 million to settle the additional claims. Congress in 2010 appropriated another $1.15 billion. The second settlement came to be known as Pigford II.
This e-mail makes a number of incorrect conspiratorial claims about Pigford II:
The e-mail says then-Sen. Barack Obama “got a law passed to reopen the case and allow more black farmers to sue.” Obama was one of many congressional supporters from both parties. But he did not cosponsor the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, which expanded the number of farmers who could sue.
The e-mail wrongly says that “this law was passed in dead silence.” There were six votes on the farm bill — including two by the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto of then-President George W. Bush, who objected to continuing “subsidies for the wealthy” farmers.
It falsely claims that the USDA “in total silence … agreed to release more funds to Pigford.” There was nothing silent about it. There were hearings that preceded the 2008 law that permitted more claims and provided more money. The USDA and Department of Justice jointly announced the $1.25 billion settlement in 2010.
It incorrectly claims there were 86,000 “fraudulent claims,” citing 1992 Census data that showed there were “only 18,816 black farmers.” But the Census data at that time counted farms, not farmers. Some farms had multiple farmers. The data also fail to account for blacks who sought but were denied the right to farm.
It’s misleading to say the family of Shirley Sherrod, a former USDA official in the Obama administration, “received the highest single payout (approximately $13 million).” The $13 million went to several families, including the Sherrods, who owned a cooperative farm called New Communities.
For years, black farmers had complained of discrimination in the awarding of USDA farm loans, debt restructuring and crop payments. In 1997, following a USDA-commissioned investigation that validated these complaints, a class-action lawsuit was filed by Pigford seeking damages and relief. On April 14, 1999, Judge Paul L. Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia approved a settlement agreement and consent decree in Pigford v. Glickman — which was later named Pigford v. Vilsack and came to be known as Pigford I.
The settlement provided two ways to seek damages: a fast-track process (Track A) that provided $50,000 plus loan forgiveness and offsets of tax liability, and a longer process (Track B) that required claimants to establish actual monetary damages caused by USDA discriminatory practices. The Track B process resulted in larger payments. As of April 7 of this year, a little more than $1 billion had been paid to 15,645 Track A claimants. About 6,900, or 31 percent of the claims, were denied. In a 2010 report, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said that “many in Congress … voiced much concern over the large percentage of denials, especially under Track A — the ‘virtually automatic’ cash payment.” CRS went on to say: “More alarming to many, however, was the large percentage of farmers who did not have their cases heard on the merits because they filed late. …”
The monitor appointed by the court to oversee the handling of the Pigford claims explained in a 2002 memorandum that the deadline for filing a claim had been Oct. 12, 1999. The memo also said that those who filed late had until Sept. 15, 2000, to file a “late claim application” with a court-appointed arbitrator, who would decide if there were “extraordinary circumstances” that would permit the late claimants to be a party to the case.
In a 2004 House hearing on the status of the Pigford case, arbitrator Michael K. Lewis testified that 65,950 late claim applications were filed by Sept. 15, 2000, and 7,742 were filed after the deadline. He told Congress, “I have completed my initial review of all 65,000 petitions. Of that number, I have found 2,268 petitions to have met the ” ‘extraordinary circumstances beyond his control’ standard.”
The rejection of tens of thousands of late claims triggered more lawsuits, as well as congressional hearings and legislation. It also triggered a lot of false and misleading information.
The e-mail is incorrect in saying that Obama “got a law passed to reopen the case and allow more black farmers to sue.”
As CRS described in its report, numerous lawsuits filed after the Pigford I settlement were consolidated into a single case legally known as In re Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation. That case became known as Pigford II. Bills were submitted in both the House (in 2006 and 2007) and the Senate (in 2006 and 2007) to allow the late claims to be heard on the merits. Obama supported these bills, but he was hardly alone. And it wasn’t a partisan issue. Republican Sens. George Allen of Virginia and Charles Grassley of Iowa sponsored the 2006 and 2007 Senate bills, respectively. Obama was a cosponsor of Grassley’s bill in 2007, and he sponsored his own version of the bill that year.
The standalone House and Senate bills did not pass, but Congress included a provision in the 2008 farm appropriations bill that permitted the courts to hear late claims and budgeted $100 million to pay those found to have merit. Obama did not sponsor the farm bill. In fact, Obama — who was campaigning for president — didn’t vote on the Senate bill, the conference report or the veto override.
The e-mail also wrongly says that “this law was passed in dead silence.” As we said, there were six votes on the farm bill — two of them by the two-thirds majority required to override Bush’s veto. In a veto statement, the Republican president objected to continuing “subsidies for the wealthy” farmers. He did not mention the Pigford case.
It’s true that Obama played a prominent role in funding Pigford II. His administration agreed to settle the claims that were now allowed to proceed as a result of the 2008 farm bill. But the e-mail is wrong to say that the USDA “in total silence … agreed to release more funds to Pigford.”
The USDA and Department of Justice publicly released a joint statement announcing the $1.25 billion settlement in 2010. Plus, the USDA could not “release more funds to Pigford” without the approval of Congress, and the money could not be paid out without court approval of the settlement. On Nov. 19, 2010, the Senate by unanimous consent passed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010 — which provided $1.15 billion in addition to the $100 million already appropriated. The House passed the bill 256-152 on Nov. 20, 2010. It was signed by Obama. The court has not yet approved the settlement, and no awards have been paid to any Pigford II claimants, said Justice spokeswoman Jessica Smith.
The e-mail also incorrectly says there were 86,000 “fraudulent claims” filed as a result of the 2008 law that permitted the late claims to go forward. As proof, the e-mail cites 1992 Census data that it says showed there were “only 18,816 black farmers” and 2007 Census data that counted “only 39,697″ farmers. The e-mail asks, “How on earth did 39,697 explode into the fraudulent 86,000 claims?” The CRS report provides some answers. That report says Census data prior to 2002 counted farms, not farmers. Some farms had multiple farmers, so there were more black farmers than black-owned farms.
Also, the CRS report said some blacks may be eligible for relief even though they were not farmers. They would include individuals or the estates of individuals who sought to farm but “were denied loans or other farm assistance,” the CRS said. It is also likely that some of the claims filed so far will not result in payment. As we said before, nearly a third of the Track A claims in Pigford I were denied. According to a website set up by the plaintiffs’ attorneys by order of the court, the Pigford II claims will not be adjudicated until the fall of 2012, and payments will not occur until “late 2012-early 2013.”
So, we don’t know how many claims are fraudulent, but those that are should be denied payments. (Similar to Pigford I, there is a fast track payment of $50,000 with debt relief and a longer process for specific damages up to $250,000.)
Shirley Sherrod & Pigford
Finally, the e-mail makes two erroneous claims about Shirley Sherrod, a former USDA official who was fired for remarks she made about race that turned out to be misrepresented by a conservative blogger. (Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the White House later apologized to Sherrod.)
The e-mail states that the “woman responsible for spearheading the case was an obscure USDA official,” referring to Sherrod. But she was not a USDA official when Congress passed the 2008 farm bill, which allowed black farmers to file late claims and have their cases heard on the merits. She was the USDA’s Georgia state director of rural development for only one year, from July 2009 until July 2010.
It’s true that Sherrod, who is black and a former farmer, was active in the Pigford case prior to working at the USDA. She, along with others at the Rural Development Leadership Network, helped organize black farmers to file claims in the original Pigford suit. But she was fighting the USDA from outside the agency, not influencing it from within. She told CNN: “I was deeply involved in all of that work and in the settlement, and in helping farmers to file their claims. So I was having to fight USDA just for the services, for the loans for farmers, for some of the programs that should have been automatic, that others were getting.”
The e-mail also erroneously states that Sherrod’s “family received the highest single payout (approximately $13 million) from that action.” The $13 million — which the Rural Development Leadership Network called the “largest award so far” in 2009 — did not go to her “family.” Rather, the money was awarded to New Communities, a farming collective founded in 1969 in rural Georgia by Sherrod and her husband, Charles. At its height, New Communities was 5,700 acres — the largest tract of black-owned land in the country — and had about a dozen families living on and working the land full time before it went out of business in 1985, according to a 2001 article by the Associated Press. In addition to their share of the New Communities settlement, Sherrod and her husband were awarded $150,000 each for pain and suffering.
This is a case of conspiracy theorists twisting the facts to build a false narrative about Obama and Sherrod.
–Eugene Kiely and Alex Eisenhower