by Max Brantley
I meant to mention this earlier. It's a must read. It's about the federal program to pay damages for systemic bias in the Agriculture Department against black farmers. The discrimination was real. But the payment program?
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.
You'll want to read on. The Arkansas angles are rich and painful.
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.”
Local figures that are mentioned in the story include former President Bill Clinton, his trusted aide Carol Willis and Othello Cross, a Pine Bluff lawyer recruited by Willis to work for the plaintiffs. Here's a sample passage:
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.
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.”
There's more. ZIP codes in Arkansas with more claimants than the number of farms. 30 percent of claims to urban counties. The process continues long after the deadline for claims. Go to the last page of the story on-line to read about a recent appearance at a church in Little Rock by Thomas Burrell, who identifies himself as an advocate for those discriminated against.
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.”