Ugly wreckage lies in the wake of Pigford vs. Glickman, the discrimination lawsuit black farmers filed years ago against USDA's Farm Service Agency.

Pigford and its 1999 consent decree struck FSA like a fist to the gut. Years later, morale is low, agents are hard-pressed from all sides, and proposed farm bills threaten to make things worse.

On the horizon are lawsuits by Hispanics, American Indians and women also claiming FSA discrimination in the handling of loan applications and seeking compensation and loan forgiveness.

American taxpayers will foot the bill, perhaps paying billions of dollars to resolve the suits. The settlement was supposed to cost taxpayers $300 million. Already, Delta Farm Press has discovered, the Pigford case has cost almost $700 million without being close to an end.

FSA absorbs high administrative costs of Pigford, fielding three teams of 50 to 60 people from current staffs to work the case. The teams go to Washington, assemble files, and write summaries that state FSA's side on claimant cases. The files then go to an adjudicator.

FSA pays travel, overtime, and per diem to team members. That money comes from FSA's regular budget.

Of $50 million appropriated for salary and expenses to administer Title VIII (disaster provisions) in 2000, almost $15 million was spent on consent decree work, according to one FSA official.

An April 2001 GAO report is telling. In fiscal 1999 and 2000, FSA paid $17.7 million from its budget for Pigford facilitators, adjudicators, arbitrators and a monitor. The report estimated FSA obligations would total $13 million for fiscal 2001. $4.5 million from FSA's budget went for administrative assistance for the settlement in 1999 and 2000. GAO estimated administrative assistance to total $2.5 million for 2001.

(The same report says that as of mid-February 2001, class counsel and related attorney fees had cost taxpayers $8 million. That money came from a judgment fund separate from FSA books.)

USDA doesn't want Pigford administrative costs listed as a separate line item because the department doesn't want taxpayers to know how much (Pigford) is costing, says one FSA official.

FSA employees say they have no records for many claimants winning cases, indicating some probably were never in an FSA office and are, therefore, filing false claims.

The Pigford settlement covers claims on USDA loans requested between Jan. 1, 1981, and Dec. 31, 1996, but FSA practice has been to keep records of disallowed loans for only three years because of limited storage space. Without documents, FSA offices are unable to dispute many claims of discrimination that go back as much 20 years.

Did anyone at FSA warn USDA about decree loopholes and document storage? FSA staffers claim they never had the opportunity. Before a serious investigation was done, they say, (former Agriculture Secretary Dan) Glickman declared FSA guilty of mass discrimination.

Discrimination didn't occur on nearly the scale that was portrayed, say FSA officials. The Pigford suit painted all of FSA with a broad brush of racism, and USDA allowed it — actually, in a way, encouraged it. Agreeing to the consent decree, USDA set itself up for other suits it must shortly address.

“Some counties deserved some heat, but the vast majority of counties did and do a great job,” says Randy Cook, president of the National Association of FSA State and County Office Employees.

FSA's county committee system drew criticism under the Clinton administration. The current county system usually has three to five committee members elected by farmers every three years. Since Pigford, minority and under-served advisors have been put on nearly every county committee in the country.

“Within USDA, there were some who wanted to eliminate county committees. NASCOE believes county committees are vital. We need to be sure minorities are elected to committees where minorities are present.

“NASCOE also supports voting rights for minorities members. Now they're just advisors, but they need voting rights,” says Cook.

“We have a female advisor on our county committee (in northern Wisconsin), but she doesn't vote. We believe she should have a say in who is hired as county FSA director, in the appeal processes and in all other actions requiring committee action.”

FSA employees are upset with the toll Pigford has taken on the agency. People have retired to avoid working on (the Pigford teams). At first, the teams were in Washington for two weeks, then home for two. Marriages suffered, family life suffered, health suffered.

Working almost 120 hours every two weeks physically ruined some team members, says an FSA official. The team's long hours were essentially mandated. If members resigned or wouldn't return to Washington, they were threatened with disciplinary actions or firings.

Things are a bit better now — at least time-wise. Team members now are on two weeks and home for four.

If USDA deals with future lawsuits as it has with Pigford, the department needs to hire additional staff at the national level, says Cook. “The money spent on the teams could be used to hire full-time employees.”

And the new farm bill — whichever version becomes law — will create even more work for FSA. USDA may have no choice but to hire more people.


email: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.