Pigford Forever

by The Editors

At the time of his premature death, the great provocateur Andrew Breitbart was more than a year into a grinding crusade to bring attention to a little-known class-action settlement called Pigford, which had begun with plausible accusations that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had discriminated against a small number of black farmers, but which had spiraled into a billion-dollar, open-ended government kickback machine for untold thousands that showed no signs of letting up. The Pigford case represented everything Breitbart 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. A handful of conservative outlets reported on the story at the time — including NR — and a handful of liberal outlets dedicated only as much ink to these stories as it took to dismiss them. But in Breitbart’s lifetime, Pigford never cracked into “the conversation”; it never came to be seen as emblematic of a deeper corruption endemic in Big Government.

Perhaps that will now change with the publication, by no less an arbiter of “the conversation” than the New York Times, of a deeply reported 5,000-word piece on Pigford and its descendants that, if anything, reveals the truth to be worse than was previously thought.

Due to the pliability of the Clinton Justice Department and the dogged efforts of a few highly incentivized trial lawyers, the original Pigford settlement made $50,000 payments available to any African American who could merely claim to have been discriminated against by the federally deputized administrators of USDA bridge loans (loans designed to get farmers from the planting season to the harvesting season). And “claim” might even be too strong a word; since administrative records for the loan program were poor, the courts set the bar laughably low. To establish oneself as a farmer for the purposes of Pigford, it would all but do to establish that you had once bought a seed and passed within a country mile of a USDA office. And to establish that you were discriminated against there, it would all but do to affirm on a form that you found that experience less than satisfactory — and to have your second cousin affirm that you told him as much at the time.

Unsurprisingly, this cash bonanza spawned a cottage industry of mountebanks and small-time frauds, including a few who toured the churches of the rural South recruiting “farmers” to stake their claims in lieu of reparations. And the number of claims exploded. Some claimants were as young as four years old; others had their forms filled out by lawyers just to “keep the line moving.” There were many reports of duplicative, even identical forms written in the same hand. In some towns, the number of claimants exceeded the number of farms there operated — by individuals of any race. The Times quotes several USDA employees whose job was to process — and ultimately rubber-stamp — these claims. “You couldn’t have designed it worse if you had tried,” one says of the process. “You knew it was wrong,” says another, “but what could you do? Who is going to listen to you?” “Basically, it was a rip-off of the American taxpayers,” says a third.

But as the Times reports in great depth, instead of closing the spigot, in 2010 the Obama administration did not just acquiesce to, it spearheaded the expansion of, the Pigford con on the taxpayer’s dime, and saw to it that not just black Americans, but any woman, Hispanic, or Native American who could so much as gesture at discrimination had access to a billion-dollar pool of easy money.

It did this over the objections of career lawyers in the Justice Department. It did this by dubiously tapping a Justice Department fund reserved for court-ordered, not politically dispensed, payouts. And it did this, in most cases, under evidentiary standards even looser than the ones governing the original settlement.

The administration claims that it was worth settling the Hispanic and Native American cases to avoid the potential of adverse court rulings. But the Times quotes parties familiar with the litigation who say that the government would have easily prevailed had the trials run their course, rendering the administration’s decision inexplicable. In the suits brought by women and Hispanics, courts found the potential pool of legitimate claimants to number 91 in total, a “class” so small that the government could have dealt with them one at a time. The Native American settlement allocated $760 million, of which only $300 million could be awarded to claimants deemed legitimate. The rest will be distributed to Native American “nonprofits” that may or may not exist, and to trial lawyers, who admitted to the Times they were pleasantly surprised by the size of their cut, but “absent a court order” had no intention of returning any of it.

None of this sorry, shameful, and outrageous mess approaches the realm of “justice.” Pigford and its spawn instead 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. The Times report exposes — as Dan Foster did in his piece for us two years ago — Senator, Candidate, and President Obama’s advocacy for the settlements as barely alloyed quid pro quo, in which Pigford profiteers promised to help Obama run up the score against Hillary Clinton in the rural South in exchange for his work on their behalf. Similarly, the Hispanic case was negligently settled at the urging of the polluted Senator Robert Menendez, who threatened to make noise if the Department of Justice did not give Hispanics the same deal the president gave blacks.

At a minimum, a congressional investigation is needed, as is congressional intervention in the continued administration of the payouts. Representative Steve King (R., Iowa) has long called for such measures, and it is time his calls are heeded. It is shame, to the tune of billions in taxpayers’ dollars, that it has taken this long for the mainstream media and its readers to catch up to the reality of Pigford. But now that they have, perhaps they can be shamed into helping put an end to it.