In a 1999 major class-action settlement, the Clinton administration agreed to pay $50,000 to each black farmer who had suffered discrimination at the hands of the federal government. As of 2001, some 40,000 people have applied for their cash.
The problem is, according to the Census Bureau, there are only 18,000 black farmers in the country.
"You didn’t even have to live in the rural community," U.S. Department of Agriculture loan official Tom Kalil said. "Heck, somebody from here in the Washington area could have been passing through a rural community and decided that they would have liked to farm and put in an application."
Kalil is a member of ECHO – Executives Committed to an Honorable Organization – a group of USDA employees who have raised questions about the black-farmer settlement and have suggested that the settlement was less an effort to correct a historical injustice and more a cynical ploy to buy votes.
"The fault is not with the black rural community," Kalil said. "The fault is with the Clinton-Gore administration and former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman for putting together a consent decree that opens up doors that should not be opened under civil rights law.
"They needed this election," he said. "A huge rural turnout to help Mr. Gore receive the presidency."
The suit brought forth by several black farmers claimed the federal government had discriminated against them for years by passing over black farmers for federal loans and giving them to white farmers instead.
And in January 1999, the government admitted it had discriminated against black farmers and settled the suit, agreeing to pay any black farmer $50,000.
"This suit is about the fact that [federal officials]practice racial discrimination, that they have terrorized black people, black farmers in this country, and that they have stolen from us what was rightfully ours," Gary Grant, a black farmer, said. "We’re talking about people who lost land, who lost hundreds, who lost thousands of acres of land."
But the terms of the settlement were sufficiently vague, flooding the government with claims. For example, a person had only to have tried farming between 1981 and 1996 to qualify.
To make things worse, the USDA can’t verify claims of loan applications made before 1996 since they simply didn’t save those records. That makes it nearly impossible to tell which black farmers were and weren’t discriminated against. Some $500,000 has been paid out so far.
Glickman defended the settlement, calling it a noble effort.
"For the first time in out history at USDA we actually were pursuing relief to help folks that had been discriminated against," he said.
And he rejected claims that it was a cynical effort to win Democratic votes, or that it was a shoddily prepared settlement.
"This was not done willy-nilly," he said. "It had to go through the United States district court and it had to get the authority and approval of the Justice Department as well," he said.
Glickman was backed up by Congress’s government watchdog, the General Accounting Office, which in April said the USDA wasn’t at fault but merely handing out money as per a federal court ruling.
And no one’s arguing that the money is being handed out indiscriminately. Some 10,000 claims have been denied, thrown out because they were so outrageous. And Glickman said that, along with those who complain of false claims are critics who say the government isn’t paying out fast enough.
Gary Grant, for example, sees no problem with black non-farmers getting their share. Even if all 40,000 claimants aren’t strictly tillers of the earth, Grant said every single one of them deserves a payment.
"If you are an African-American, you deserve $50,000 because your roots are in farming and your folk have already been cheated," he said. "You are collecting what your grandparents didn’t have the opportunity to."
That’s not enough to sway Kalil, who sees the hand of politics in the settlement, which came just as the presidential campaigns were gearing up.
"I would suggest hundreds of thousands of votes were influenced in this election as a result of what I consider to be a huge violation of justice and abuse of power and abuse of the system and abuse of the American taxpayer," he said.