Parsimony demands a simpler explanation: that the majority, even the vast majority, of Pigford claims are frivolous at best and fraudulent at worst. That is the case being made by perhaps the loudest critic of Pigford: journalistic gadfly Andrew Breitbart.
Though Breitbart says the biggest revelations are yet to come, he has coauthored a report detailing some of the crime that has been directly tied to Pigford. The most sensational example comes from 2006, when a Mississippi couple was sentenced to life in prison on conspiracy charges in the murder of Clovis Reed, who had plotted with the couple to make fraudulent Pigford claims and who they feared would testify against them in court. The year before, two college administrators in Arkansas were convicted of attempting to fraudulently claim $400,000 after they attended a meeting whose organizers told them the settlement was a “veiled way to collect reparations for centuries-old grievances.”
The government is not unaware of the widespread fraud. According to an anonymous FBI source quoted in Breitbart’s report, a preliminary investigation into Pigford suggested that at least half the claims filed had been falsified — but the investigation never went anywhere, because federal prosecutors had no taste for the racial politics that would have attended it.
The USDA itself appears to have turned a blind eye to blatant irregularities. One USDA employee with firsthand knowledge of the claims process told Breitbart et al.:
We saw claims come in from affluent areas. There were claims from Palm Beach and Palm Springs, and they said they were black farmers. One applicant said the Chicago USDA office discriminated against them. There is no USDA office in Chicago. They got paid anyway.
Others went on record. John Stringfellow, a farm-loan supervisor covering six Arkansas counties, called Pigford “the largest scam against federal taxpayers in the history of the United States,” saying that among the 800 or so claims he personally received, over 80 percent had never applied to USDA assistance programs, nor farmed at all.
But even the largest scam against taxpayers eventually runs its course. By 2007, with every filing deadline having passed, the consent decree in mothballs, and tens of thousands of unpaid claimants lingering on the rolls, Pigford advocates knew they needed new judicial action, or help from Congress, to get paid. They got the latter in the form of the Pigford Claims Remedy Act of 2007, which came, as so much legislative mischief does, as an amendment to that year’s farm bill. It had a single sponsor: Sen. Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois (where, incidentally, only 98 out of 77,000 farms are operated primarily by blacks). The bill, which became known as Pigford II, extended the filing deadline by more than ten years, through June 19, 2008. It also continued the Track A and Track B routes, appropriated an additional $1.25 billion for payouts, and added a provision that prevented claimants’ homes from being foreclosed on while their cases were being adjudicated.
It came after Gary Grant, president of the influential and Pigford-evangelizing Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association, had written Obama a letter promising him all the financial and ballot support the BFAA could marshal in the rural South in exchange for his continued work on the plight of the black farmer. Grant had told Fox News he didn’t care whether all the Pigford claimants were really farmers, since “if you are an African American, you deserve $50,000, because your roots are in farming, and your folk have already been cheated.” Claimants, according to Grant, were “collecting what [their] grandparents didn’t have the opportunity to.”
Obama’s championing of Pigford II was seen by some as part of an effort to run up the score against Hillary Clinton with rural black voters in tough southern primaries. Whatever its purpose, the bill languished in committee through the 110th Congress. But Obama didn’t forget. As president, he signed the Pigford II legislation, and charged agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack and attorney general Eric Holder with negotiating a new settlement for unpaid claimants. It came in February 2010, with Vilsack’s announcement that the federal government would no longer stand vis-à-vis Pigford claimants “as an adversary, but as a partner.”