Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is firing back at a group of House conservatives who continue assert that the $1.25 billion discrimination settlement with black farmers included in legislation passed Friday by the Senate is rife with fraud.
That bill to settle both the Pigford II black-farmer discrimination and Cobell Native American trust fund mismanagement cases is expected to reach the House floor for final passage as early as next week.
But Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., says she is “disappointed” with the Senate’s vote, contending that “serious claims of fraud exist” with the Pigford settlement. “Too many elected officials are far too comfortable spending taxpayer dollars without knowing where that money will actually end up,” Bachmann said in a statement late on Friday.
Vilsack responded today: “These accusations are nothing more than an attempt to derail Pigford II, an effort to provide long-overdue compensation to thousands of black farmers who were discriminated against over several decades.”
At issue are assertions by Bachmann and others that the funding in the bill to resolve those claims includes payments to individuals who were never farmers.
Bachmann noted in her statement and on her Facebook page that she and Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., since September have been calling for a full investigation into such concerns.
“As a constant advocate for careful use of taxpayer dollars, I was concerned when I learned that this settlement has 94,000 claims of discrimination, even though only approximately 33,000 black farmers exist in the United States,” said Bachmann.
But Vilsack said today that such claims using current Census numbers on black farmers “are not the proper guide for the number of claimants, and certainly no basis for allegations of fraud.”
Rather, the Pigford settlements are designed to compensate those who suffered USDA discrimination between 1981 and 1997 – including families that are no longer able to farm as a result of the discrimination. This means that there will be more claimants than there are current farmers, says the Agriculture Department.
To press claim under that lawsuit, farmers had to prove they applied for a USDA loan but were rejected because of racial discrimination. But tens of thousands black farmers who say they did suffer discrimination failed to have their cases decided on the merits, because of confusion or lack of awareness about the government's filing deadline.
Pigford II is actually the follow-up to the original class action lawsuit, to allow consideration of claims that were not decided on their merits.
The USDA points out that allegations of fraud in connection with that previous settlement program all were forwarded to the department’s inspector general, who then passed them to the FBI. Ultimately, according to the department, the FBI prosecuted a total of 3 individuals – out of a total of 20,000 claimants.
In his statement today, Vilsack said the Obama administration is “committed to ensuring that anyone receiving a payment under Pigford II was the victim of discrimination and has a valid claim that deserves compensation by following the very specific criteria outlined in the 2008 farm bill.”
There was no immediate response from Bachmann.