By SHARON LaFRANIERE
Published: April 25, 2013
In the winter of 2010, after a decade of defending the government against bias claims by Hispanic and female farmers, Justice Department lawyers seemed to have victory within their grasp.
Ever since the Clinton administration agreed in 1999 to make $50,000 payments to thousands of black farmers, the Hispanics and women had been clamoring in courtrooms and in Congress for the same deal. They argued, as the African-Americans had, that biased federal loan officers had systematically thwarted their attempts to borrow money to farm.
But a succession of courts — and finally the Supreme Court — had rebuffed their pleas. Instead of an army of potential claimants, the government faced just 91 plaintiffs. Those cases, the government lawyers figured, could be dispatched at limited cost.
They were wrong.
On the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling, interviews and records show, the Obama administration’s political appointees at the Justice and Agriculture Departments engineered a stunning turnabout: they committed $1.33 billion to compensate not just the 91 plaintiffs but thousands of Hispanic and female farmers who had never claimed bias in court.
The deal, several current and former government officials said, was fashioned in White House meetings despite the vehement objections — until now undisclosed — of career lawyers and agency officials who had argued that there was no credible evidence of widespread discrimination. What is more, some protested, the template for the deal — the $50,000 payouts to black farmers — had proved a magnet for fraud.
“I think a lot of people were disappointed,” said J. Michael Kelly, who retired last year as the Agriculture Department’s associate general counsel. “You can’t spend a lot of years trying to defend those cases honestly, then have the tables turned on you and not question the wisdom of settling them in a broad sweep.”
The compensation effort sprang from a desire to redress what the government and a federal judge agreed was a painful legacy of bias against African-Americans by the Agriculture Department. But an examination by The New York Times shows that it became 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. In the past five years, it has grown to encompass a second group of African-Americans as well as Hispanic, female and Native American farmers. In all, more than 90,000 people have filed claims. The total cost could top $4.4 billion.
From the start, the claims process prompted allegations of widespread fraud and criticism that its very design encouraged people to lie: because relatively few records remained to verify accusations, claimants were not required to present documentary evidence that they had been unfairly treated or had even tried to farm. Agriculture Department reviewers found reams of suspicious claims, from nursery-school-age children and pockets of urban dwellers, sometimes in the same handwriting with nearly identical accounts of discrimination.
Yet those concerns were played down as the compensation effort grew. Though the government has started requiring more evidence to support some claims, even now people who say they were unfairly denied loans can collect up to $50,000 with little documentation.
As a senator, Barack Obama supported expanding compensation for black farmers, and then as president he pressed for $1.15 billion to pay those new claims. Other groups quickly escalated their demands for similar treatment. In a letter to the White House in September 2009, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a leading Hispanic Democrat, threatened to mount a campaign “outside the Beltway” if Hispanic farmers were not compensated.
The groups found a champion in the new agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack. New settlements would provide “a way to neutralize the argument that the government favors black farmers over Hispanic, Native American or women farmers,” an internal department memorandum stated in March 2010.
The payouts pitted Mr. Vilsack and other political appointees against career lawyers and agency officials, who argued that the legal risks did not justify the costs.
Beyond that, they said it was legally questionable to sidestep Congress and compensate the Hispanic and female farmers out of a special Treasury Department account, known as the Judgment Fund. The fund is restricted to payments of court-approved judgments and settlements, as well as to out-of-court settlements in cases where the government faces imminent litigation that it could lose. Some officials argued that tapping the fund for the farmers set a bad precedent, since most had arguably never contemplated suing and might not have won if they had.
“The fund is not politically accessible, it is only legally accessible,” said David Aufhauser, the Treasury Department’s general counsel from 2001 to 2003. “Otherwise, it is a license to raid the till.”
A 2010 settlement with Native Americans was contentious for its own reasons. Justice Department lawyers argued that the $760 million agreement far outstripped the potential cost of a defeat in court. Agriculture officials said not that many farmers would file claims.
That prediction proved prophetic. Only $300 million in claims were filed, leaving nearly $400 million in the control of plaintiffs’ lawyers to be distributed among a handful of nonprofit organizations serving Native American farmers. Two and a half years later, the groups have yet to be chosen. It is unclear how many even exist.
The Times’s examination was based on thousands of pages of court and confidential government documents, as well as interviews with dozens of claimants, lawyers, former and current government officials and others involved in the cases over the past 14 years. Many officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing rules against disclosing internal government deliberations and, in a few cases, the desire not to be drawn into a racially charged controversy.
Mr. Vilsack has said the compensation effort ushers in “a new chapter of civil rights atU.S.D.A.,” where “we celebrate diversity instead of discriminate against it.”
In an interview, he said the payments had been fully justified and carefully controlled. Fraud has been a “really, really small part of it,” he added, pointing out that so far, three of every 10 claims had been rejected and only three claimants had been convicted of fraud.
“We weren’t just writing checks for the heck of it,” Mr. Vilsack said. “People were not treated fairly, and in fact, even today there are damages as a result of folks who weren’t treated fairly.”
Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West, who supervised the civil division and oversaw the handling of the cases, canceled an interview. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. also declined to comment.
Instead, the department provided senior officials, permitted to speak only on the condition of anonymity, who said that resolving the lawsuits averted potentially higher costs from an onslaught of new plaintiffs or losses in court. They also said the attorney general had broad discretion to settle litigation. “It was a priority for the administration to resolve the long-standing discrimination cases,” a senior official said, and give “farmers who believed they had been discriminated against a chance to seek redress.” Career Justice Department lawyers, who participated in that interview, declined to answer when asked if they favored the outcome of their cases, saying their advice is confidential by law.
Senior White House and Justice Department officials also defended the use of the Judgment Fund. “Questions were certainly raised about whether this was something you could use the Judgment Fund to pay for,” a senior White House official said. “They considered the relevant legal standards and concluded it was.”
Mr. Vilsack blamed disgruntled Agriculture Department employees for the criticism of the payouts, saying some simply refused to acknowledge the pervasiveness of discrimination. “There are a lot of agendas here, and you are opening up a Pandora’s box,” he said.
But critics, including some of the original black plaintiffs, say that is precisely what the government did when it first agreed to compensate not only those who had proof of bias, but those who had none. “Why did they let people get away with all this stuff?” asked Abraham Carpenter Jr., who farms 1,200 acres in Grady, Ark. “Anytime you are going to throw money up in the air, you are going to have people acting crazy.”
Farmers Claim Discrimination
Farmers routinely borrow money to carry themselves from high-cost planting season to harvest time; lack of credit can lead to barren fields. The original lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, filed in federal court in Washington in August 1997, argued that the Agriculture Department’s credit bureau, now called the Farm Service Agency, routinely denied or limited loans to black farmers while freely distributing them to whites.
Two government reports that year found no evidence of ongoing, systemic discrimination. The Government Accountability Office reported that 16 percent of minority farmers were denied loans, compared with 10 percent of white farmers, but traced the difference to objective factors like bad credit. An Agriculture Department study also found “no consistent picture of disparity” over the previous two years.
But the study concluded that decades of discrimination before then had cost African-American farmers significant amounts of land and income. Black farmers gave heart-rending accounts of loan officers who withheld promised money while crops withered, who repossessed their land and sold it to white cronies, who advised them to milk cows for white farmers rather than sow their own crops.
Written discrimination complaints had fallen on deaf ears at the Agriculture Department, where the civil rights office had been disbanded during the Reagan administration.
John W. Boyd Jr., a Virginia farmer who leads the National Black Farmers Association, was among those who pressed President Bill Clinton to settle the case. At a White House meeting in December 1997, Mr. Boyd said, he recounted how a loan officer denied him $7,500 and then handed a $150,000 check to a white farmer who had not even filled out an application.
The same loan officer spat at him, he said, and later claimed that he had missed a spittoon. It was, Mr. Boyd said in an interview, “the most degrading thing that ever happened to me.”
Just five months after the lawsuit was filed, and without the investigative step of discovery, the Justice Department opened settlement negotiations.
There were certainly legal reasons to resolve the case. The presiding federal judge, Paul L. Friedman, was clearly unsympathetic to the government’s arguments. Moreover, the Justice Department was barred from appealing his certification of the lawsuit as a class action until after the case was over. That set the stage for a potentially long and costly battle.
Still, “it was more a political decision than a litigation decision,” said one lawyer familiar with the administration’s stance. “The administration was genuinely sympathetic to the plight of these farmers.”
Mr. Clinton asked Carol Willis, then a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee who was known for his expertise in black voter turnout, to get involved. Mr. Willis said the president wanted to make sure his home state, Arkansas, benefited. Mr. Willis said he recruited Othello Cross, a Pine Bluff lawyer, to join the plaintiffs’ legal team.
“It had been wrong for many years,” Mr. Willis said. “Clinton figured he had to try to right it.”
So did Judge Friedman.
He initially limited the class of potential claimants to African-Americans who had farmed between 1981 and 1996 and had previously filed written discrimination complaints. But his final order significantly expanded the class, admitting those who had only “attempted to farm.” And it threw out the requirement for a written bias complaint, stating that an oral complaint was sufficient if someone other than a family member attested to it in an affidavit.
The Agriculture Department was partly to blame for the lack of records. It routinely discarded failed loan applications after three years, and it had badly mismanaged written discrimination complaints. Ninety percent of the farmers had no records either, plaintiffs’ lawyers said.
The billion-dollar settlement, the judge’s opinion said, was designed to provide “those class members with little or no documentary evidence with a virtually automatic cash payment of $50,000.” Those with documentary proof could seek higher awards, a tack ultimately chosen by fewer than 1 percent of applicants.
Justice Department lawyers worried about false claims. But the lawyer familiar with the Clinton administration’s stance said they had decided that “it was better to err on the side of giving money to people who might not qualify if they went through litigation than to deny money to people who actually deserve it.”
Randi Roth, the settlement’s court-appointed monitor, said that whatever its shortcomings, the accord charted the most efficient legal remedy where records no longer existed. “The formula they agreed to had the checks and balances of an adversarial process with multiple levels of review,” she said.
John C. Coffee Jr., a Columbia Law School professor and specialist in complex litigation, said that not requiring documentary evidence “was quite unusual, but there were also special circumstances.”
Still, he said, “I don’t think they realized how much of an incentive they were creating for claims to multiply. It is a little bit like putting out milk for a kitten.
“The next night, you get 15 kittens.”
‘It Just Went Wild’
Delton Wright, a Pine Bluff justice of the peace, recalled what happened after word of the settlement reached his impoverished region: “It just went wild. Some people took the money who didn’t even have a garden in the ground.” He added, “They didn’t make it hard at all, and that’s why people jumped on it.”
Mr. Wright, whose family owns farmland outside Pine Bluff, won his claim. So did two other applicants whose claims were virtually identical to his, with the same rounded handwriting, the same accusations of bias and similar descriptions of damages suffered.
Now 57, with his memory weakened by what he said was a recent stroke, Mr. Wright said he could not recall details of the discrimination he encountered, much less explain the apparent duplicate claims.
But Mr. Cross, the Pine Bluff lawyer, has his suspicions. “It got out of control,” said Mr. Cross, adding that he had filed about 1,500 claims, including Mr. Wright’s and the apparent duplicates. He estimated that up to 15 percent of Arkansas claims were fraudulent.
Claimants described how, at packed meetings, lawyers’ aides would fill out forms for them on the spot, sometimes supplying answers “to keep the line moving,” as one put it.
Albert Garza, 63, seated at top left, and Rene Garza, 69, farmers from the lower Rio Grande valley in Texas, listened to Mr. Vilsack in 2009 at the fairgrounds, near Las Cruces. The brothers complained of discrimination against Hispanic farmers by federal farm loan officers.—————-Credit: Norm Dettlaff/Las Cruces Sun-News, via Associated Press
Even his own staff was complicit, Mr. Cross said; he discovered that four employees had been slipping unverified claims into stacks of papers that he signed. He did not inform the court monitor, he said, because “the damage was done.”
On two floors of the Cotton Annex building in Washington, a 300-member team from the Farm Service Agency reviewed claims before adjudicators rendered their final decisions. In recent interviews, 15 current and former Agriculture Department employees who reviewed or responded to claims said the loose conditions for payment had opened the floodgates to fraud.
“It was the craziest thing I have ever seen,” one former high-ranking department official said. “We had applications for kids who were 4 or 5 years old. We had cases where every single member of the family applied.” The official added, “You couldn’t have designed it worse if you had tried.”
Carl K. Bond, a former Agriculture Department farm loan manager in North Carolina, reviewed thousands of claims over six years.
“I probably could have got paid,” said Mr. Bond, who is black. “You knew it was wrong, but what could you do? Who is going to listen to you?”
Accusations of unfair treatment could be checked against department files if claimants had previously received loans. But four-fifths of successful claimants had never done so. For them, “there was no way to refute what they said,” said Sandy Grammer, a former program analyst from Indiana who reviewed claims for three years. “Basically, it was a rip-off of the American taxpayers.”
The true dimensions of the problem are impossible to gauge. The Agriculture Department insists that the names and addresses of claimants are protected under privacy provisions. But department data released in response to a Freedom of Information request by The Times are telling. The data cover 15,601 African-Americans who filed successful claims and were paid before 2009.
In 16 ZIP codes in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and North Carolina, the number of successful claimants exceeded the total number of farms operated by people of any race in 1997, the year the lawsuit was filed. Those applicants received nearly $100 million.
In Maple Hill, a struggling town in southeastern North Carolina, the number of people paid was nearly four times the total number of farms. More than one in nine African-American adults there received checks. In Little Rock, Ark., a confidential list of payments shows, 10 members of one extended family collected a total of $500,000, and dozens of other successful claimants shared addresses, phone numbers or close family connections.
Agriculture Department reviewers found many suspicious claims for compensation, some from nursery-school-age children.
Thirty percent of all payments, totaling $290 million, went to predominantly urban counties — a phenomenon that supporters of the settlement say reflects black farmers’ migration during the 15 years covered by the lawsuit. Only 11 percent, or $107 million, went to what the Agriculture Department classifies as “completely rural” counties.
A fraud hot line to the Agriculture Department’s inspector general rang off the hook. The office referred 503 cases involving 2,089 individuals to the F.B.I.
The F.B.I. opened 60 criminal investigations, a spokesman said, but prosecutors abandoned all but a few for reasons including a lack of evidence or proof of criminal intent. Former federal officials said the bar for a successful claim was so low that it was almost impossible to show criminality.
In Arkansas, prosecutors rejected a test case against a Pine Bluff police officer who had admitted lying on his claim form. Paula J. Casey, the United States attorney in Arkansas in 2000, said that singling out one individual raised questions of selective prosecution.
“The defendant could go to the jury and say: ‘Everybody else did this. Why am I standing here?’ ” she said.
The claim period ended in late 1999, although the adjudication process dragged on for a dozen years. But the gusher of claims had only begun.
“Once those checks started hitting the mailboxes, people couldn’t believe it,” said Mr. Wright, the Pine Bluff justice of the peace. “Then it dawned on them. ‘If Joe Blow got a check, I can get one.’ ”
Lawmakers Turn Up the Heat
Some 66,000 claims poured in after the 1999 deadline. Noting that the government had given “extensive” notice, Judge Friedman ruled the door closed to late filers. “That is simply how class actions work,” he wrote.
But it was not how politics worked. The next nine years brought a concerted effort to allow the late filers to seek awards. Career Agriculture Department officials warned that they might be even more problematic than initial claimants: in one ZIP code in Columbus, Ohio, nearly everyone in two adjoining apartment buildings had filed, according to the former high-ranking agency official.
President George W. Bush was unreceptive to farmers’ repeated protests. But Congress was not: legislators from both parties, including Mr. Obama as a senator in 2007, sponsored bills to grant the late filers relief.
Mr. Boyd said Mr. Obama’s support led him to throw the backing of his 109,000-member black farmers’ association behind the Obama presidential primary campaign. Hilary Shelton, the N.A.A.C.P.’s chief lobbyist, said Mr. Obama’s stance helped establish him as a defender of the concerns of rural African-American communities.
Public criticism came primarily from conservative news outlets like Breitbart.com and from Congressional conservatives like Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, who described the program as rife with fraud. Few Republicans or Democrats supported him. Asked why, Mr. King said, “Never underestimate the fear of being called a racist.”
Congress finally inserted a provision in the 2008 farm bill allowing late filers to bring new lawsuits, with their claims to be decided by the same standard of evidence as before. The bill also declared a sense of Congress that minority farmers’ bias claims and lawsuits should be quickly and justly resolved.
Congress overrode a veto by Mr. Bush, who objected to other provisions in the bill. But as Mr. Bush left Washington, Congress had appropriated only $100 million for compensation, hardly enough to pay for processing claims.
Within months of taking office, President Obama promised to seek an additional $1.15 billion. In November 2010, Congress approved the funds. To protect against fraud, legislators ordered the Government Accountability Office and the Agriculture Department’s inspector general to audit the payment process.
But simultaneously, the Agriculture Department abandoned the costly and burdensome review process it had applied to earlier claims. As a result, according to internal government memos, the percentage of successful claims is expected to exceed that in the original 1999 settlement. More than 40,000 claims have been filed and are under review.
In November, the G.A.O. concluded that antifraud provisions provided “reasonable assurance” of weeding out false claims, saying more than 3,100 suspicious applications had been identified. But as before, it noted, late filers need not document claims, leaving adjudicators to rely on assertions that they have “no way of independently verifying.”
Few Claims, Big Payout
The Bush Justice Department had rebuffed all efforts to settle the parallel discrimination suits brought by Native American, Hispanic and female farmers. But now, the Obama administration’s efforts to compensate African-American farmers intensified pressure from members of Congress and lobbyists to settle those cases as well.
Within the administration, Secretary Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who had briefly run for president, found an ally in Mr. West, who had been named an assistant attorney general after serving as a major Obama fund-raiser. Sweeping settlements with the three groups, Mr. West argued, would eliminate legal risks and smooth relations between the Agriculture Department and important constituencies.
The Native-American case was clearly problematic for the government. The federal judge overseeing the case, Emmet G. Sullivan, had already certified the plaintiffs as a class, although only to seek changes in government practices and policies. He postponed a decision on whether they could seek monetary damages as a class.
But Justice Department litigators were far from unarmed. If they lost on damages, case law suggested that the decision might be reversed. Depositions had revealed many of the individual farmers’ complaints to be shaky. And federal judges had already scornfully rejected the methodology of the plaintiffs’ expert, a former Agriculture Department official named Patrick O’Brien, in the women’s case.
Mr. O’Brien contended that white farmers were two to three times as likely as Native Americans to receive federal farm loans in the 1980s and 1990s than were other farmers. But the government’s expert, Gordon C. Rausser, a professor of economics and statistics at the University of California, Berkeley, had produced a 340-page report stating that Mr. O’Brien’s conclusions were based “in a counter-factual world” and that Native Americans had generally fared as well as white male farmers.
Professor Rausser was astounded when, with both sides gearing up for trial in late 2009, the government began settlement negotiations. “If they had gone to trial, the government would have prevailed,” he said.
“It was just a joke,” he added. “I was so disgusted. It was simply buying the support of the Native-Americans.”
Agriculture officials predicted that only 5,300 Native Americans were likely to file claims. The plaintiffs’ lawyers, whose fees were to be based on a percentage of the settlement, estimated up to 19,000 claims.
Only 4,400 people filed claims, with 3,600 winning compensation at a cost of roughly $300 million. That left $460 million unspent — of which roughly $400 million under the terms of the settlement must be given to nonprofit groups that aid Native American farmers.
Ross Racine, the director of the Intertribal Agricultural Council, based in Montana, said his organization, with an annual budget of just $1 million, is perhaps the biggest eligible group. But many others are lining up to share the windfall, he said.
“Everybody is looking at this money on the table and saying, ‘Give me some because I am a good guy,’ ” he said.
The remaining $60.8 million will go to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, led by the Washington firm Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll. In court papers, the firm argued that the size of the payment was justified partly by the fact that the settlement nearly equaled the maximum estimate of economic damages. Joseph M. Sellers, the lead counsel, acknowledged the unspent amount was unexpectedly big. But “absent a court order,” he said, “we don’t intend to return it.”
On Feb. 19, 2010, Alan Wiseman, a lawyer for the Hispanic farmers, strode into Federal District Court in Washington unusually upbeat. “Sometimes,” he told Judge James Robertson, “it takes divine intervention” to move the government.
Over the past decade, his case had not gone well. Nor had the parallel lawsuit brought by female farmers.
Judge Robertson had refused to certify either group as a class. The United States Court of Appeals had upheld him, stating in 2006 that the Hispanic plaintiffs had been denied loans “for a variety of reasons, including inadequate farm plans and lack of funds.” Nor had female farmers proved a pattern of bias, the court found.
The Justice Department’s lawyers had definitively ruled out any group-style settlement. “Some of these folks have never made a loan payment in their entire history with U.S.D.A.,” Lisa A. Olson, the lead government litigator against the 81 Hispanic plaintiffs, told Judge Robertson in August 2009. “There may even be folks who are under criminal investigation.”
Michael Sitcov, assistant director of the Justice Department’s federal program branch, told the judge that senior department officials agreed with career litigators that the cases should be fought one by one.
But members of the Congressional Hispanic caucus and a group of eight Democratic senators, led by Mr. Menendez, were lobbying the White House to move in the opposite direction. They grew increasingly agitated as the plaintiffs’ cases appeared to falter.
In a letter to Mr. Obama in June 2009, the senators noted that black farmers stood to receive $2.25 billion in compensation, but that Hispanic farmers, who alleged the same kind of discrimination, had gotten nothing. Should that continue, Mr. Menendez wrote that September, “Hispanic farmers and ranchers, and their supporters, will be reaching out to community and industry leaders outside of the Beltway in order to bring wider attention to this problem.”
The issue came to a head after the Supreme Court refused to reopen the issue of class certification. The next month, on Feb. 11, 2010, Daniel J. Meltzer, principal deputy White House counsel, held the first of three meetings at which resolution of the case was discussed, records and interviews show. Among the attendees were senior Justice and Agriculture Department officials, including Mr. West, Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, and Krysta Harden, then the assistant agriculture secretary for Congressional relations.
Settlement negotiations began the next week. Judge Robertson expressed surprise at the news, “given the history of the case.”
The decision to compensate potentially tens of thousands of Hispanics and women out of the Judgment Fund averted what was likely to be an uphill struggle with Congress. Nearly a year after the White House had asked for money to compensate the second wave of African-American farmers, Congress was still sitting on its hands. But there was sharp disagreement within the government over whether the claims from Hispanics and women met the Judgment Fund’s “imminent litigation” test.
On the one hand, it was possible that absent a settlement, some people now filing administrative claims might have sued. Judge Robertson was expected to allow new plaintiffs for several more months. Although only 10 women had sued, their lawyers had obtained affidavits alleging discrimination from 2,000 others. Attorneys for the 81 Hispanic farmers also raised the vague specter of tens of thousands of plaintiffs.
Even so, 10 years had passed since the litigation began. To some administration officials, the prospect of a huge last-minute rush seemed unlikely.
In agreeing to the payout, the government did, for the first time, impose a greater evidentiary burden. While one major category of claimants — those who said their loan applications had been unfairly denied — remained eligible for payments of up to $50,000 without any documentation, others were required to produce written evidence that they had complained of bias at the time. The Hispanic plaintiffs were indignant.
Adam P. Feinberg, who represents some of them, said: “Once the government puts a program in place for one racial group, even if it decides it is too generous, it cannot adopt a different set of restrictions for another racial group. It’s outrageous.”
The claims process opened in late September, six weeks before the election. In the weeks before the March 25 deadline, facing far fewer claimants than expected, the Agriculture Department instructed processors to call about 16,000 people to remind them that time was running out, despite internal disquiet that the government was almost recruiting claims against itself. The deadline was then extended to May 1.
So far, about 1,900 Hispanics and 24,000 women have sought compensation, many in states where middlemen have built a cottage industry, promising to help win payouts for a fee.
Last October, a court-appointed ombudsman wrote that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people had given money to individuals and organizations in the belief that they were reserving the right to file a claim under the second settlement for black farmers, only to learn later that their names had never been forwarded to the authorities. People familiar with that statement said it was directed in part at Thomas Burrell, a charismatic orator and the head of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, based in Memphis.
Mr. Burrell has traveled the South for years, exhorting black audiences in auditoriums and church halls to file discrimination complaints with his organization’s help, in exchange for a $100 annual membership fee.
In an interview last month, Mr. Burrell said he had dedicated his life to helping black farmers after biased federal loan officers deprived him of his land and ruined his credit. He said his organization had misled no one, and had forwarded the names of all those eligible and willing to file claims.
“I have never advocated anybody file a false claim,” he said. “I have worked almost pro bono for this cause.”
On a recent Thursday at the Greater Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, several hundred African-Americans listened intently as Mr. Burrell told them they could reap $50,000 each, merely by claiming bias. He left out the fact that black men are no longer eligible, and that black women are eligible only if they suffered gender, not racial, bias.
“The Department of Agriculture admitted that it discriminated against every black person who walked into their offices,” he told the crowd. “They said we discriminated against them, but we didn’t keep a record. Hello? You don’t have to prove it.”
In fact, he boasted, he and his four siblings had all collected awards, and his sister had acquired another $50,000 on behalf of their dead father.
She cinched the claim, he said to a ripple of laughter, by asserting that her father had whispered on his deathbed, “I was discriminated against by U.S.D.A.”
“The judge has said since you all look alike, whichever one says he came into the office, that’s the one to pay — hint, hint,” he said. “There is no limit to the amount of money, and there is no limit to the amount of folks who can file.”
He closed with a rousing exhortation: “Let’s get the judge to go to work writing them checks! They have just opened the bank vault.”