John W. Boyd Jr., the steadfast leader of the National Black Farmers Association, was in high spirits last December. President Barack Obama had just signed a bill authorizing $1.25 billion to settle a long-standing discrimination case filed by thousands of black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The feat was hailed as a landmark civil rights victory, and Boyd was relieved to finally see justice for his constituents.
Two months later, he now says that their last hope is in danger. Driven by mostly anonymous anecdotes and misinformation from conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart (of grossly edited Shirley Sherrod video fame), an online campaign alleges that the black farmers' legal claims are scams that threaten to swindle the government out of billions.
The story dates back to a 1997 class-action lawsuit known as the Pigford case, brought by 22,721 black farmers against the USDA for unfairly denying them loans between 1983 and 1997 — loans that were routinely given to white farmers. Of the claimants, 15,642 successfully proved discriminatory practices and received compensation in a nearly $1 billion government settlement.
About 72,000 more black farmers, who missed the lawsuit's filing deadline, were allowed to establish separate proceedings in 2008, collectively known as Pigford II. These late-filing applicants, whose $1.25 billion settlement President Obama signed into law last December, have been called into question. Although each claimant must first undergo an adjudication process, requiring substantial evidence of discrimination in order to receive payment, they've been called outright frauds.
A common misgiving in the conservative blogosphere is a discrepancy between the number of Pigford claimants and black farmers counted by the Census of Agriculture. While there have been more than 94,000 claimants (the combined number of applicants from both the original Pigford suit and Pigford II), the census never counted more than 33,250 black farmers in a single year between 1983 and 2007.
Boyd explains, and a December 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service confirms, that the census is a poor indicator of the actual number of black farmers. The census, for example, failed to recognize that many farming operations are run by more than one farmer. According to Boyd and the CRS report, census figures also do not account for black farmers who leased or rented farmland. Finally, the census numbers don't include the Pigford claimants who were not actually farmers, but people who attempted to farm and were denied loans.
Making matters worse for black farmers, many have been hustled by scam artists who are charging them fees for counterfeit claim forms. The Root talked to Boyd for his side of the story on fraud allegations, the slow-moving settlement process and his frustration with having to once again prove the black farmers' case.
The Root: When President Obama authorized the settlement, it was estimated that qualified applicants would receive compensation by August. Where are you in the payment process?
John W. Boyd Jr.: The case is being overseen by Judge Paul Freeman in federal district court, and he hasn't approved the late-filer process yet. There's not even a finalized claim form. Notifications have not been sent out to farmers to let them know it's time to file their claims. Nobody's claim has been adjudicated, and there hasn't been a dime paid out. So you can't paint a group of people as being fraudulent when none of their cases have been heard. We don't know yet who's eligible and who's not eligible.
JB: I don't know. I was hopeful that Judge Freeman would move expeditiously on this, like the two Native American lawsuits that we actually paved the way for — the Keepseagle case and the Cobell case. Keepseagle is a lawsuit that American Indian farmers filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was settled for $760 million and given preliminary approval by a different federal judge. That case is off and moving.
The Cobell case [a $3.4 billion settlement between Native American trust-account holders and the Department of the Interior] was in the same bill as the Pigford II case, and that has also received preliminary approval by a federal judge. But the black farmers' settlement has not received approval thus far.
TR: What do you think is the motivation behind Andrew Breitbart's mission to "expose" the Pigford II settlement as a scam?
JB: I think this is a group of people who don't want to see black people receive a dime. If that's not the reason, then why haven't they looked into the Native American settlements? The Cobell settlement was on the same bill as mine. That case has 300,000 potential payments, but not once have you heard anything about an investigation or fraud. Why is it just black people that they portray as being so bad?
It just seems to me that every time you raise an issue related to blacks in this country, the far-right wing tries to say that it's somehow fraudulent. They keep saying that they don't know where all these black farmers came from. Every African American in this country is only two or three generations away from a farm — that's where we come from.
TR: I understand that black farmers themselves have been the victims of scam artists.
JB: We've had farmers throughout the Deep South being told that they have to fill out a claim form of some type, and that there's a fee for it. The fees they're being charged have ranged from $100 up to $1,000.
Now, there is no fee involved in this case. The farmers will not have to pay anything. But we have scammers trying to take advantage of a group of people who are somewhat desperate. They're tired of waiting. Another problem is that a lot of these black farmers don't really read and aren't getting the correct information. All of that opens the door for people who are looking to make a fast buck.
TR: Some black farmers have also taken up with Breitbart, saying that the real victims have been shut out of the settlement. Can you explain who these people are?
JB: Breitbart has been interviewing farmers that were denied compensation in the first Pigford lawsuit. The confusion that they have managed to create is this: They think that the nearly 9,000 farmers who were denied in the first lawsuit should have been a part of the bill that the president signed back in December. I actually agree.
As a matter of fact, when I first wrote the bill for late filers, the farmers who had statute of limitation cases [from the original lawsuit] and the late filers were all in the same bill. But the statute of limitations cases were stripped from the bill in the House of Representatives, and that part was not funded. Those 9,000 farmers that had been denied were taken out.
TR: But if those farmers had already gone through an adjudication process and didn't qualify, why should they be given another chance?
JB: In the original process, they had to go out and find a similarly situated white farmer to compare their case to. There was supposed to be an automatic $50,000 payment if they proved their case, but as the process unfolded, the arbitrators began adding more stipulations. So in the first Pigford case, they had to find similarly situated white farmers, but claimants in the Pigford II case did not. I fought tooth and nail to take that language out.
And I agree that those 9,000 farmers should have been a part of the bill. But Andrew Breitbart is painting it as though they're supposed to be part of the current settlement. But the fact is, the first lawsuit is over and done with. You'll notice he's not interviewing any farmers who are bona fide, certified late filers.
JB: Many blacks that attempted to farm are people who wanted to continue family operations once their fathers passed on. What the government has often done is pressure a black farm family to sell their operation, versus lending them money to continue it. In many cases, they just told blacks there wasn't any money available, yet when whites came into the county office, they rolled out the carpet and showed them every program available. That's the nature of the "good old boys" system in the USDA.
As for people lying about attempting to farm, the adjudication process will weed those people out. Each case is going to be heard individually on its merits by an individual arbitrator. Anti-fraud provisions and a perjury clause were added into the bill to weed out bad claims, yet the right-wing blogs never mention that.
TR: To clarify the broader point here — just because someone files a claim doesn't mean that they qualify for payment, right?
JB: No, it doesn't, and these bloggers keep saying everybody is going to get paid. That is not true. In the original Pigford settlement, out of around 22,000 claims, only about 16,000 people qualified and got paid. It's not a blanket settlement. Let the process go forward, and let the chips fall where they fall. Those people who have valid cases will be compensated, and people who have a problem proving their case will fall through the cracks.
TR: What's been the most frustrating part of these fraud accusations?
JB: The fact that we worked so hard for the settlement, and here I am — months after the president signed the bill into law, after 20 years of hurdles — I'm still defending the case of the black farmers. After court hearings, after congressional hearings, after getting told no a million times, after drafting a bill, after fighting over statutes of limitations and after passing various bills from the farm bill to the appropriation, I'm still defending the fact that discrimination happened to black farmers. It's discouraging that in this country, we have to continue, time and time again, to prove our case.
People make these accusations of fraud and say nothing about the fact that for years, county officials mistreated black farmers in this country. Do you know how many farmers I've eulogized who died with no justice? That bothers me more than anything. It's almost as if what we've contributed to American agriculture, and what we've contributed to America, isn't worth anything. I think something is wrong with that.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter. Follow her on Twitter.