Although President Barack Obama signed a measure two months ago meant to fund the settlement of a longstanding case known as the Black farmers lawsuit, no payout is in sight despite scam artists who suggest otherwise.

That was the heart of the message that National Black Farmers Association president Dr. John Boyd sought to deliver earlier this week at the National Press Club. “We’ve had a very long struggle. We’re still struggling,” he said in reference to the lawsuit, which began in 1997 and alleged the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against Black farmers on the basis of race and failed to investigate or respond to complaints from 1983 to 1997.

“We still don’t have the money,” said in reference to the second settlement of the case, meant in large part to give claimants who still hadn’t had their cases heard under the original case a chance to do so. “Farmers still haven’t even begun to have their cases heard.”

Dr. Boyd said he wanted to warn Black farmers that they do not have to pay any application fees to get their cases heard, which he said some con artists in certain remote areas of the deep South have been getting or trying to get Black farmers to do.

“I’m here to put people on alert that they do not have to pay a $1,000 fee,” Dr. Boyd said, although his details about the alleged scams were scarce.

The conference momentarily grew heated when a Huffington Post blogger critical of Boyd’s advocacy suggested that most of the individuals who hope to cash in on the $1.15 billion settlement are non-farmers seeking to defraud the federal government, not actual farmers.

“Not one damn dime has been paid out,” Boyd told the blogger, Lee Stranahan, in response. “And all of the sudden you’ve labeled 80 percent of these people fraudulent? Let them go through process.”

At one point during the Q&A, National Press Club member and event host Karrye Braxton threatened to call security on Stranahan ? who carried a handheld camera he aimed at Dr. Boyd ?kept making statements about the case instead of asking Dr. Boyd an actual question.

Despite Stranahan’s questions about non-farmers seeking to file claims, the settlement, formally known as Pigford II, actually allows not only for claims to be filed by Black farmers who farmed and were denied loans through USDA agencies from 1981 through 1996, but also those who attempted to farm and were denied loans during the same period.

Congress enacted legislation that led to Pigford II in 2008 due to concerns about the large number of late-filing applicants who did not obtain a determination of the merits of their claims under the original Pigford settlement approved by a federal district court judge in 1999, according to The Pigford Cases: USDA Settlement of Discrimination Suits by Black Farmers, a report prepared by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.

The CRS report cites concerns about “ineffective or defective” notice regarding the case.

Under the terms of the Pigford II settlement agreement, claimants who submitted late-filing requests under the original Pigford case between Oct. 12, 1999, and June 19, 2008, but have not had their case heard, can seek relief of up to $50,000 plus debt relief, or choose the longer process for damages of up to $250,000, according to the CRS report.

The actual number of eligible claimants ? said to be in the tens of thousands ? remains to be seen, Dr. Boyd said, adding that anti-fraud provisions would serve to prevent non-eligible claimants from filing claims. In order to receive a settlement payment, for instance, claimants expose themselves to perjury for filing a bogus claim. “At the end of the day, those who prevail will prevail,” Dr. Boyd said. “And those who get denied will be denied.”

Though funding for the settlement has been signed by President Obama, the measure must be approved by U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman before it can become part of the settlement.

“I’m hopeful that Judge Friedman will make that decision soon,” Dr. Boyd said.

 

Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Special to the AFRO