It’s unclear whether the facts would have cohered into a “preponderance of the evidence” — the standard required to prevail in civil suits — for Pigford. But there is statistical evidence of USDA discrimination against black farmers through the 1980s. According to a USDA report, in several southeastern states it took an average of three times as long to process successful loan applications from blacks as from whites — and in a field as time-sensitive as farming, such delays were often disastrous. By contrast, loan denials and foreclosures came quicker for blacks than for whites. The USDA office that investigated such complaints was closed down in 1983, leaving farmers two possible channels of recourse: the same FmHA boards that they believed had discriminated against them, or the federal courts.
Pigford fought his way up the bureaucracy, securing meetings with high-level USDA officials, and even one with President Clinton. By 1997, the Clinton administration was offering ten-cents-on-the-dollar settlements to Pigford and his relatively small cohort of black farmers, in the interest of healing (and avoiding a messy lawsuit). And Pigford might have been ready to settle. But unwittingly, by building momentum for his cause, Pigford — who had been begging attorneys to take up the case for years — had drawn the attention of the sharks.
Enter Al Pires, a trial lawyer and former Justice Department hand who had helped break up AT&T before going into a lucrative private practice. He agreed to take up the cause of as many as 2,500 black farmers, turning their discrimination cases into a class-action suit seeking as much as $3 billion in damages from Uncle Sam. He promised not to accept a cent in legal fees until the farmers got their awards. Pigford and the others signed on. Within months, Pires had the Clinton administration admitting that there had been costly discrimination over the last two decades, and a trial date was set for Pigford v. Glickman.
The government hoped that mediation would keep the case out of the courtroom. Pires wanted the opposite, government lawyers say, and launched a campaign to sabotage the negotiations. He eventually prevailed, and the defeated government offered him terms he could live with. There were unsubstantiated grumbles, then and now, that the timing of the settlement had something to do with Al Gore’s desire to compete with George W. Bush in the rural South. Whatever the merits of those claims, there can be no doubt that the Clinton administration’s new conciliatory tone affected the tenor of the negotiations — a 1996 public apology offered by Clinton secretary of agriculture Dan Glickman was seen by all as having been a turning point in the legal battle.
On Jan. 5, 1999, a federal district court in Washington, D.C., approved a preliminary consent decree — essentially a seal of approval for a settlement — granting class-action relief for a wide swath of black farmers. Give or take an unseemly lawyer, it looked like the angels had won. It was a victory bipartisan in the making: Speaker Newt Gingrich had helped push through legislation waiving the statute of limitations for discrimination complaints, allowing the suit to clear a crucial legal hurdle. But the story was far from over, and Pigford v. Glickman would prove the settlement that launched a hundred thousand frauds.
The “Pigford class” — the range of individuals eligible to claim settlement money — originally was defined as
all African-American farmers who (1) farmed between January 1, 1983, and Feb. 21, 1997; and (2) applied, during that time period, for participation in a federal farm program with USDA, and as a direct result of a determination by USDA in response to said application, believed that they were discriminated against on the basis of race, and filed a written discrimination complaint with USDA in that time period.