US officials, black farmers defend USDA settlement after critical New York Times story

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Members of the black farming community and their advocates are responding to claims made in a recent New York Times article that a billion-dollar settlement made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to compensate black farmers has become a “magnet for fraud.”

The piece also suggests that rampant mismanagement by government officials overseeing the settlement process has led to numerous claims being made by fraudulent parties, wasting taxpayer dollars.

The newspaper investigated the administration of the $1.33 billion settlement to a certain group of black farmers who claimed discrimination by the U.S.D.A. during a very specific period. The Times’ examination — based mostly on court documents and interviews with claimants, lawyers and government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity — concluded that the cash for settlement payments process had become, “a runaway train, driven by racial politics, pressure from influential members of Congress and law firms that stand to gain more than $130 million in fees.”

The result stated by the Times is that some claimants on a massive scale are forging the necessary documents and then being paid the $50,000 each claimant is entitled to through the Pigford II settlement, which was approved in 2011. This process is executed without any attempt to assess the validity of each claim, the Times claims. Children who are too young to be claimants, for example, have been awarded, according to the paper.

The settlement has been the target of scrutiny by conservative politicians and media since even before it was approved in October 2011. Republican Rep. Michelle Bachmann said months before in July that claims to the settlement appeared “proof-positive of fraud.” More recently, right-wing site – which gained notoriety for a now discredited video that lead to the resignation of former USDA official Shirley Sherrod – published a story that calls the settlement and “scheme” and “one of the largest, most blatant frauds in American [sic] history.”

Since the piece ran in The Times Thursday, several black farmers’ organizations and government officials have spoken out to refute its assertions.

“The claims processes we helped develop in Pigford II and the other minority farmer cases have freed up limited Justice Department resources and provide farmers who have evidence of discrimination by the USDA the chance to obtain appropriate relief,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West in an exclusive statement to theGrio. “Importantly, these claim processes have requirements to help ensure that compensation funds go only to those who deserve them, but should credible allegations of fraud arise, the Justice Department won’t hesitate to investigate and, if feasible, prosecute perpetrators. So it’s our belief that the resolutions we were able to craft in Pigford II, as well as in the other large farmer civil rights matters, were not only responsible, fair, and consistent with the rule of law; they were the right thing to do.”

The New York Times article is a lame shot at those who cannot defend themselves,” wrote John W. Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, in an editorial Thursday for the Huffington Post. “Insinuating that the black farmers’ case seeded, encouraged, or inspired fraud is a low blow.”

The non-profit Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund has released a point-by-point rebuttal, detailing a stringent system to qualify for a settlement where claimants had to prove bias and even identify similar situations where white farmers received more favorable treatment – all under the penalty of perjury. As a result of this process, the organization states that 30% of all claims were subsequently denied.

Still other advocates for black famers connect the current criticism of the settlement to long-standing discrimination against the black farming community and resistance to righting historical wrongs.

“For over a century, African Americans were excluded from being recipients of federal farm legislation that provided swaths of land to European Americans that solidified their domination of the country’s land and natural resources.” says Tracy McCurty, co-executive director at the Black Belt Justice Center.  “It is unfortunate, and revelatory, that The New York Times did not take the journalistic high road to ensure that the narrative of the plight of African American farmers to receive a semblance of justice after decades of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its personnel.”

To date there have been no awards distributed since the settlement was approved in 2011.

The New York Times responded to requests from theGrio for comment, but none was received by publication time.

Update: The New York Times Investigations Editor Matt Purdy emailed theGrio the following statement in response to our requests for comment.

“Without getting into a point by point discussion of a 5,000 word article, our research was based on a review of voluminous documents and dozens of interviews with people in and outside the government,” Purdy wrote. “All the quotes were from on the record interviews, except for two, for the reasons stated in the article. One of those interviewed was Mr. Boyd, who was asked about fraud among other issues. The article makes clear there was ample evidence that the initial settlement proved susceptible to false claims, yet it explicitly states that the extent of the problem is impossible to quantify because the names of claimants are secret. Readers can judge the rigor of the claims process for themselves by clicking on the link with our article that takes them to documents related to a successful claim.”

Follow Donovan X. Ramsey at @iDXR

This article has been updated.