Oct. 17, 2004

Discrimination Continues at USDA

Black farmers win suit, harvest little

BY SARAH FRANK
Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - George Hildebrandt works every day on the Kansas farm his grandfather homesteaded from the federal government in the 1880s. After devastating floods twice wiped out his farm, Hildebrandt, 63, tried to rebuild by buying seeds on credit and using 40-year-old farm equipment.

He was turned down each time he applied for loans from the Agriculture Department; he says it is because he is black. And now he says he is being shut out a second time, denied access to money from a lawsuit intended to remedy the initial discrimination.

Thousands of black farmers across the country are making the same claim. Despite a lawsuit several years ago that resulted in a $2.3 billion settlement from the department for loan discrimination, about 85 percent of farmers seeking cash from the settlement say they have been unfairly rejected.

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Before paying, they say, the Agriculture Department is requiring them to undertake such bureaucratic tasks as locating a white farmer in their area in similar economic straits who applied for a loan around the same time and was accepted.

After dozens of protests, including a march to the Capitol late last month, Congress is beginning to take notice and considering the unusual move of trying to reopen the case. At a recent hearing, lawmakers appeared to favor taking action to help the farmers.

Responding to the pressure, the Agriculture Department said it is doing the best it can and will add black farmers to hundreds of county committees across the country that oversee the allocation of loans.

Department officials also said they did not determine the rules of the settlement and insisted they have complied with guidelines set by the court.

"We take this very seriously, ensuring we serve all our farmers and ranchers regardless of color, gender or status," spokesman Ed Loyd said.

But many farmers say they have been hurt twice: first by a biased Agriculture Department loan process and then by a court settlement that apparently is not working.

"All we are asking for is what is right," Hildebrandt. If he received the settlement funds, he added, "It still wouldn't bring back all that I have lost. But I think I could make it. But I would still be so far behind, I could never catch up."

In any case, many black farmers have been in limbo for years and many say they are worse off than they were 10 or 15 years ago.

The class action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, which was settled in 1999, set out to rectify admitted discrimination in the farm loan process by awarding large sums of money to thousands of slighted black farmers.

But only 1 in 10 black farmers has been allowed into the "class," the group of farmers receiving the money, according to a report by the public interest group Environmental Working Group.

Thousands were rejected because they missed filing deadlines, were not aware of the lawsuit or had their claims turned down because of improper paperwork, the group said.

The group also said the Agriculture Department has spent enormous resources trying to block black farmers from collecting the money.

Government lawyers put in 56,000 work hours challenging 129 farmers' claims, the report said, and by 2002, the department had spent $12 million disputing individual claims.

Meanwhile, the farmers say, discrimination continues. Another lawsuit filed in September, spearheaded by a national black farmers group, seeks $20 billion and class status for up to 25,000 black farmers who say the department discriminated against them between 1997 and 2004.

Loyd said the Agriculture Department is working to improve the situation. Adding more blacks to oversight committees in counties with many minority farmers will ensure the agency does not discriminate, he said. These committees monitor how federal farm subsidies are distributed.

"There's a whole series of issues, and we are trying to get at the fundamentals so that we prevent ever having a cause or a need for litigation in the future," Loyd said.

He acknowledged the department has made some effort at disputing farmers' claims, but said this involved a group of cases in which claimants with larger farm operations wanted to claim losses that amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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Loyd also said the department has created a voluntary database of farmers to let them know about minority aid programs they could be eligible for.

This has not been enough to satisfy Congress.

At a recent hearing of the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the House Judiciary Committee, Chairman Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said Congress might consider drafting legislation to reopen the class and allow more people to become beneficiaries.

"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.

But there is disagreement over how much power Congress has over a lawsuit settled years ago.

Alexander Pires, an attorney representing the class, testified at the hearing he did not think Congress had the legal authority to rewrite the rules of the settlement.

Still, lawmakers from both parties said they were frustrated that so many farmers were still waiting for money.

Advocates for the farmers are encouraged by the response.

"We think, at least now, Congress is paying attention," said Tom Burrell, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association. "This is the beginning of the first step to put this train that has been halted back on the track."

The train has been halted, black farmers said, because of the outcome of the 1999 lawsuit, which forced the Agriculture Department to set aside $2.3 billion to repay black farmers.

But the Environmental Working Group report released this summer claimed only about $672 million of this has been distributed.

Of the 94,000 farmers who came forward with complaints of discrimination, 81,000 - or about 85 percent - were not included in the settlement, the group said.

In Hildebrandt's case, he said he was denied entry into the class because he did not provide paperwork proving he was a farmer.

"The government knows I farm," he said. "I'm in a computer somewhere."

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Hundreds of other black farmers who said they found out about the lawsuit after the deadline also want a chance to get money from the settlement. There was a late-filing deadline, but only for farmers who missed the first due to extraordinary circumstances such as a hurricane or serious illness.

Claimants in the class could opt to receive a $50,000 settlement or they could claim actual losses.

James Lyle, who raised hogs in the 1970s and 1980s, said $50,000 would do little for him; he estimates his losses were closer to $1 million.

When Lyle could not get bank or Agriculture Department loans to operate his farm, he faced losing his 46 acres in Prince Edward County, Va. He shut down his business so he could keep his land.

Lyle watched as his white neighbors received Agriculture Department loans to buy new farm equipment but said it was not until he heard of the lawsuit that it occurred to him he was being discriminated against.

"Back then, we didn't give a lot of thought to it because it was kind of part of the norm," Lyle said. "But when you get out and you look back and you see the reality of it, then you notice that it was discrimination. We didn't realize it then because it was just a part of it."

In 2000, the department offered to settle with Lyle for $140,000, Lyle said, but he refused because "that is not justice."

Lyle and others say they need to be heard more clearly by lawmakers.

"We need farmers up there on that panel to describe what has been happening to them," Hildebrandt said. "If we miss this opportunity, how many more are going to come along?"

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© 2004, Chicago Tribune.