July 21, 2010
Forty Acres & a Mule -- Sherrod Style?
Shirley Sherrod's quick dismissal from the Obama administration may have had less to do with her comments on race before the NAACP than her long involvement in the aptly named Pigford case, a class action against the US government on behalf of black farmers alleging that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) had discriminated against black farmers during the period from 1983 through 1997. According to Wikipedia:
The plaintiffs settled with the government in 1999. Under the consent decree, all African American farmers would be paid a "virtually automatic" US$50,000 plus granted certain loan forgiveness and tax offsets. This process was called "Track A".
Alternatively, affected farmers could follow the "Track B" process, seeking a larger payment by presenting a greater amount of evidence - the legal standard in this case was to have a preponderance of evidence along with evidence of greater damages....
At the time the case was settled, it was estimated there would be in the area of 2,000 to 3,000 claims. As with most estimates involving government handouts that number was woefully short of the mark. Again, according to Wikipedia:
22,505 "Track A" applications were heard and decided upon, of which 13,348 (59%) were approved. US$995 million had been disbursed or credited to the "Track A" applicants as of January 2009, including US$760 million disbursed as US$50,000 cash awards. Fewer than 200 farmers opted for the "Track B" process.
Beyond those applications that were heard and decided upon, about 70,000 petitions were filed late and were not allowed to proceed. Some have argued that the notice program was defective, and others blamed the farmers' attorneys for "the inadequate notice and overall mismanagement of the settlement agreement." A provision in the 2008 farm bill essentially allowed a re-hearing in civil court for any claimant whose claim had been denied without a decision that had been based on its merits
In other words, according to Agri-Pulse.com the number of total claims filed not only exceeded the original estimate by almost 40 to 50 times, it is close to four times the USDA's estimate of 26,785 total black owned farms in 1977! One reason for this is that the settlement applied to farmers and those who "attempted to farm" and did not receive assistance from the USDA. Getting the latest round of Pigford cases from the 2008 farm bill settled is said to be a high priority for the Obama administration.
So where does Sherrod come into this picture? In a special to the Washington Examiner, Tom Blumer explains that Sherrod and the group she formed along with family members and others, New Communities. Inc. received the largest single settlement under Pigford.
... New Communities is due to receive approximately $13 million ($8,247,560 for loss of land and $4,241,602 for loss of income; plus $150,000 each to Shirley and Charles for pain and suffering). There may also be an unspecified amount in forgiveness of debt. This is the largest award so far in the minority farmers law suit (Pigford vs Vilsack).
What makes this even more interesting to me is that Charles appears to be Charles Sherrod, who was a big player in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early 1960s. The SNCC was the political womb that nurtured the Black Power movement and the Black Panthers before it faded away.
Blumer has some questions about this settlement and about Sherrod's rapid departure from the USDA
•Was Ms. Sherrod's USDA appointment an unspoken condition of her organization's settlement?
•How much "debt forgiveness" is involved in USDA's settlement with New Communities?
•Why were the Sherrods so deserving of a combined $300,000 in "pain and suffering" payments -- amounts that far exceed the average payout thus far to everyone else? ($1.15 billion divided by 16,000 is about $72,000)?
•Given that New Communities wound down its operations so long ago (it appears that this occurred sometime during the late 1980s), what is really being done with that $13 million in settlement money?
Here are a few bigger-picture questions:
•Did Shirley Sherrod resign so quickly because the circumstances of her hiring and the lawsuit settlement with her organization that preceded it might expose some unpleasant truths about her possible and possibly sanctioned conflicts of interest?
•Is USDA worried about the exposure of possible waste, fraud, and abuse in its handling of Pigford?
•Did USDA also dispatch Sherrod hastily because her continued presence, even for another day, might have gotten in the way of settling Pigford matters quickly?
I second his conclusion that the media and bloggers shouldn't be so quick to dismiss Shirley Sherrod.
Let me start by adding another question to the list. In her position at not for profit, Rural Development Leadership Network, a network of activists and community builder, was Sherrod involved in any way in encouraging people to submit fraudulent claims under Pigford? Did she put black people who owned rural land in touch with lawyers who would file the paperwork claiming attempts to farm had been prevented by the non cooperation of the local USDA?
I ask because there are a multitude of small parcels of non productive rural land all across the south, land unsuitable for mechanized agriculture that was once owned by subsistence farmers, black and white alike. Many of these parcels continue to be owned by family members who moved elsewhere out of sentimental reasons. The property taxes and other carrying costs are cheap and often ancestors are buried there in family plots. A drive on any country road in the South may turn up several carefully maintained postage stamp sized family cemeteries. As I read Blumer, I wondered how many of the owners claimed they had attempted to farm just such acreage to score a fast $50,000 from Uncle Sam?