New York Times Uncovers Devastating Fraud in Minority Farmers Program

Here's something you won't see on Gawker very often: Andrew Breitbart was somewhat right.

In a damning article published in the New York Times today, reporter Sharon LaFranier does a 5,000-word deep-dive into the fraud and abuse that is apparently rampant in the government's Pigford settlement, a program the late Breitbart had in his crosshairs for some time. Pigford v. Glickman was a class action lawsuit in which black farmers alleged they were systematically deprived of loans from the United States Department of Agriculture throughout the '80s and '90s. The suit was settled in 1999, but it eventually gave rise to a second settlement, Pigford II, which allowed women, Latinos, and Native Americans to file claims of government prejudice.

All of this by itself isn't a problem—government reports and a court of law found that some farmers had indeed been discriminated against by the USDA. But things soon spiraled out of control:

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 Pigford fraud has gotten so bad, according to the Times, that claims have been filed on behalf of young children. Entire apartment buildings in Columbus, Ohio, have filed claims. Multiple claims using the same handwriting and describing almost the exact same tales of discrimination have been filed and paid out, and all as government officials and attorneys did nothing to prevent the infelicities. A black former Agriculture Department farm loan manager in North Carolina told LaFraniere: "You knew it was wrong, but what could you do? Who is going to listen to you?"

The details in this story guarantee it will be talked about constantly in conservative media circles for the foreseeable future: minority groups filling their coffers by scamming the U.S. government, unscrupulous lawyers abetting the scheming, a black president pressing for lots more money that went to fraudsters, conservative protestations ignored. Breitbart.com is already running a write-up of the article under the blaring headline "Breitbart Vindicated." The final scene of the article, in fact, which depicts a man who's made it his job to help black people get Pigford money saying to an entire church that they should file discrimination claims, is so wanton and grotesque it almost seems like a bit of right-wing fiction. After bragging to the hundreds of people assembled that he and all four of his siblings had gotten Pigford settlement money, the man, Thomas Burrell, tells the audience: "Let’s get the judge to go to work writing them checks! They have just opened the bank vault.”

The article contains a lot of surprising revelations, but the article itself is a sort of surprise in that it appeared in the New York Times and not Fox News or the National Review or any of the conservative media outlets that are already champing at the bit to roast liberals who had supported Pigford for their malfeasance. The right wing has been whining about Pigford for years. But rather than do the legwork to expose the true problems underlying the program, Breitbart and his ilk were content to put out misleadingly edited videos of Shirley Sherrod to try and smear the USDA as being a haven for "reverse" racism.

Mother Jones' Kevin Drum has a good and simple lesson on why Pigford got out of hand: "You can either set a high bar for evidence of discrimination, knowing that it will unfairly deny compensation to lots of people who were treated wrongly. Or you can set a low bar, knowing that this will unfairly give money to lots of people who don't deserve it."

But that explanation won't change the fact that many will look at Pigford as further evidence that blacks are lazy takers and that federal programs intending to right America's historical and racist wrongs are always wasteful. In other words, it's going to give fuel to racists who will in turn go on discriminating against blacks and Latinos, who will in turn push for institutions to help them get ahead in a racist country. Lather, rinse, repeat.

[Image via AP]