Somehow, it’s appropriate that a multibillion-dollar slam-bang government porkfest in which tens of thousands of undeserving claimants and their lawyers scooped up billions in taxpayer funds goes by the name of “Pigford.”
This “criminal conspiracy,” in the words of one conservative publication that has reported on it for years, began under President Clinton, but was staved off for a time by President Bush (who was finally overridden in 2008 by Congress) — and then was rekindled at an even higher level under President Obama.
Strangely enough, it was finally brought to national attention by the New York Times.
Until the Times published a 5,500-word expose this week, the scandal had been the province of a few right-wing bloggers, most notably the late and very great Andrew Breibart, a hard-edged yet jovial exposer of government bloat and pretentious progressives, and stories in such conservative standby outlets as National Review and The Weekly Standard.
Yet, if it weren’t for Breibart (who died far too soon, and whose work continues at the Breitbart News ), would the Times ever have been motivated to look into the story at all?
Here’s the Times’ summary of what happened:
“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.”
National Review Online summed up the program as “a billion-dollar, open-ended government kickback machine for untold thousands that showed no signs of letting up. The Pigford case represented something Breibart raged against in the American political order — large-scale cronyism, corrosive and cynical identity politics, unrepentant hypocrisy, and the predictable indifference of the mainstream media. … (that is) emblematic of a deeper corruption endemic in Big Government.”
Here’s what happened, in a timeline filled out by the Times:
“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. … But the study concluded that decades of discrimination before then had cost African-American farmers significant amounts of land and income.”
So the Justice Department moved quickly to settle the suit, providing $50,000 payments (to an estimated maximum of 2,500 farmers) while requiring little or no evidence that claimants attempted to farm. People with documentation could seek more money, but the Times reported that fewer than 1 percent of claimants did so.
- At that point, things “just went wild,” according to one Arkansas justice of the peace interviewed by The Times, who added, “Some people took the money who didn’t even have a garden in the ground. They didn’t make it hard at all, and that’s why people jumped on it.”
As John C. Coffee Jr., a Columbia Law School professor and specialist in complex litigation, put it, “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.”
- Many more than that, as it turns out. As Othello Cross, a Pine Bluff, Ark., lawyer on the plaintiffs’ team, told the Times, “It got out of control.” He said he had filed about 1,500 claims, and estimated that up to 15 percent of Arkansas claims were fraudulent.
As the Times reported, “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. 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.’ ”
“It was the craziest thing I have ever seen,” one former high-ranking Agriculture official told the Times. “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.”
- How bad was it? “In 16 ZIP codes in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and North Carolina, the number of successful (black) 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,” the Times reported.
In one North Carolina town, “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.”
- But the window for filing claims closed in 1999, and some thought that the problem had been contained. Although 66,000 claims were filed after that date, they were set aside by the courts. ” 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.”
But racial-spoils-seeking politicians weren’t giving up, the Times reported. While “President George W. Bush was unreceptive to farmers’ repeated protests. … Congress was not: legislators from both parties, including Mr. Obama as a senator in 2007, sponsored bills to grant the late filers relief.”
While Bush opposed such moves, by 2008 Congress had successfully amended a farm bill to renew the cases. Bush vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode it, and in 2009 newly elected President Obama “promised to seek an additional $1.15 billion,” the Times reported
“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.”
And then racial politics really kicked in. According to the Times, “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 (Hispanic and female) plaintiffs but thousands of Hispanic and female farmers who had never claimed bias in court.”
Another move opened the program to Native American claimants as well. Some $760 million was allocated, but only $300 million could be awarded to applicants deemed legitimate, the Times said.
As NRO pointed out, “The rest will be distributed to Native American ‘nonprofits’ that may or may not exist, and to trial lawyers, who admitted to the Times that they were pleasantly surprised by the size of their cut, but absent a court order had no intention of returning any of it.”
The Times concluded, “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.”
- Those open gates produced the desired result: “The claims process opened in late September (2012), 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.”
What have we ended up with? Says NRO: “Pigford and its spawn … resembles in organization and aim a criminal conspiracy of breathtaking proportions, and one in which the federal government was first complicit and then ultimately responsible.”
And when the words “federal government” and “criminal conspiracy” can be credibly combined in one sentence, someone in authority should be forced (and yes, I mean “forced”) to answer some extremely serious questions.
Those expecting that to happen, however, should not be holding their breath. Answers about Pigford will get on the administration’s agenda right after answers about the Justice Department’s Fast and Furious Mexican gunrunning scandal, the State Department’s lack of protection for American diplomats in Benghazi and the absence of CIA and FBI concern over the Boston bombers’ history of involvement with jihadist organizations.
Where, exactly, is the line that marks the point when a political party stops producing criminal conspiracies and becomes one itself?
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org