In the great tale of avarice and corruption that is the Pigford scandal, few groups come out as badly tarnished as the lawyers. From the outset, enterprising attorneys saw a chance to make a killing on the backs of victims and, hijacking their distress and coating it in the impregnable shield of racial grievance, they set about taking it. In seeking mass justice, there will always be “collateral damage.” But this? This was something else altogether. This was the discarded plot of a histrionic John Grisham novel.
Our hero is Al Pires, the first of many sharks to take to the Pigford water. As this underwatched 60 Minutes clip shows, as early as the early 1990s, Pires was wandering around the South picking up litigants for a class-action suit against the Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately Pires’s hard work yielded him only 400 or so people with credible stories. Sure, many of these people had actually been discriminated against. But, really, who cares? Even at a potential return of a quarter million per plaintiff, his cadre just didn’t promise enough of a return on investment. So, hiding behind generic claims of “discrimination” by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the enterprising Pires set about inventing a whole new class of eligible people and tying the original case to a wider cause. Calling America the “biggest racist the world has ever seen,” he justified the vague system that he had created on the grounds that it would facilitate “mini-reparations.” Are you actually a farmer? Doesn’t really matter! Come one come all, for there’s money to be made. Thus the victims became mere tools.
Expanding the case to include “attempted farmers” had nothing to do with justice. Instead, by pushing as many people as the system could process through the “Track A” mill — which allowed plaintiffs to bypass a court date in exchange for a lower potential payout — lawyers led by Pires had contrived a clever mechanism by which, for just 15 minutes’ administrative work or less, they could win a pretty much guaranteed 50-grand payout for each farmer — or, rather, each “farmer.” In the words of one judge, after Congress and the Obama administration had given the lawyers what they wanted, government policy essentially dictated that the most questionable plaintiffs, “those class members with little or no documentary evidence” that they had ever had any intention of becoming farmers, be offered “a virtually automatic cash payment of $50,000.” In response, thrilled law firms sealed the deal by setting up “no win, no fee” systems that helped them to assure their sometimes reluctant “clients” that they had nothing to lose. Then they let word of mouth do its thing. Before long, they had created a cash mill.
It is, suffice it to say, not conventional for the government to work with trial lawyers to create a system that encourages people to commit fraud. But this was not a normal case. In the New York Times’ exhaustive story, a department official from the Farm Service Agency claims that “you couldn’t have designed it worse if you had tried.” “Worse,” though, rather depends on your perspective. Eventually, 90 percent of Pigford-related claims were filed by “attempted farmers” who had little evidence to back up their applications. And of course they were. A GAO report from December 2012 revealed that, by statute, the (USDA) was effectively not allowed to try to confirm the veracity of applicants’ information. Thus a country with just 18,000 black farmers — 2,000–3,000 of whom had loans — yielded over 100,000 plaintiffs. Twenty years after he started, Pires’s work had paid off. He alone made at least $10 million.
The vultures descended. Among them was Morgan and Morgan, a shady, industrial-scale personal-injury firm based in Tampa, Fla. Morgan and Morgan had absolutely nothing to do with the original Pigford case, of course. But that didn’t stop their ambitious leader, David Morgan — he of the heavy political connections to the Obama administration and, now, to turncoat ex-governor Charlie Crist — from getting in on the payday. Morgan’s business instincts, as ever, were spot-on. The venture was so successful that lead attorney Greg Francis was quickly moved up to “partner and stockholder” purely on the basis of his work on the case. In a surreal twist, Morgan and Morgan also obtained the services of Mike Espy, the former Clinton-era USDA secretary. Thus, America was treated to the sight of a former secretary of agriculture representing litigants who were suing the Department of Agriculture for discriminatory practices executed while their lawyer was in charge of it.
Meanwhile, as the New York Times observed:
On the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling, interviews and records show, the Obama administration’s political appointees at the Justice and Agriculture Departments engineered a stunning turnabout: they committed $1.33 billion to compensate not just the 91 plaintiffs but thousands of Hispanic and female farmers who had never claimed bias in court.
Who cares about abstract notions such as “bias”? There were elections to win and lawyers’ fees to inflate. Just ten female farmers had filed suit before the Obama administration sidestepped Congress and set up a $1.33 billion “Judgment Fund” to address their concerns. Twenty-four thousand women filed afterwards.
The case was expanded not just to “Hispanic and female farmers,” but to Native Americans too. The Justice Department agreed to a $760 million settlement with Native American plaintiffs, though had their claims been brought to trial, the resulting payouts would have totaled far less than that amount. Indeed, only $300 million of these funds have been claimed. And where does the remaining $460 million now reside? In the hands of a law firm called Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, PLLC. Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll will keep $60.8 million of it. The rest the firm will “administer” to non-profit groups that will — somehow — benefit Native American farmers. It is no surprise that lead attorney Joseph Sellers considers that the “settlement marks a major turning point in the important relationship between Native Americans, our Nation’s first farmers and ranchers, and the USDA”; I venture that I might feel a bit like that, too, if I’d just been given 60 million bucks to keep and a $400 million slush fund to dole out on my whim. “Two and a half years later,” the New York Times reports, “the groups have yet to be chosen. It is unclear how many even exist.”
“It is unclear how many even exist.” What a perfect description of the whole damn mess.
Perhaps the greatest, and the most subtle, of lawyer jokes was written by William Shakespeare in Henry VI: Part II. Explaining how his usurpation of the throne might pan out for the good denizens of England, Jack Cade promises that “there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.” His accomplice, Dick, adds, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
In recent years, there has been some pushback against this line from those who presume that Shakespeare saw lawyers as virtuous guardians of order with which any would-be tyranny would need to dispense. Those who have fallen prey to this conceit perhaps didn’t read the following line, in which Cade agrees:
That I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? That parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings: but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.
Wax or no wax, the bee stings. Unless, that is, you can get the government to work hand in hand with the bee, have him scribble “$50,000” on that parchment, and hand it out willy-nilly to all comers — having taken 20 percent for himself, of course.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.