It’s rare to get this kind of vindication, so let’s enjoy it in memory of Andrew Breitbart for as long as possible. For more than two years, Andrew and Lee Stranahan have investigated the Pigford settlement and the fraudulent claims that not only have cost taxpayers billions, but have left the original black farmers who sued the USDA over discrimination in the lurch. Today the New York Times reports what Andrew and Lee have been saying all along — that the Pigford settlement was a political hack job by Tom Vilsack’s Department of Agriculture, and that it’s a magnet for fraud (via Twitchy):
The compensation effort sprang from a desire to redress what the government and a federal judge agreed was a painful legacy of bias against African-Americans by the Agriculture Department. But an examination by The New York Times shows that it became a runaway train, driven by racial politics, pressure from influential members of Congress and law firms that stand to gain more than $130 million in fees. In the past five years, it has grown to encompass a second group of African-Americans as well as Hispanic, female and Native American farmers. In all, more than 90,000 people have filed claims. The total cost could top $4.4 billion.
From the start, the claims process prompted allegations of widespread fraud and criticism that its very design encouraged people to lie: because relatively few records remained to verify accusations, claimants were not required to present documentary evidence that they had been unfairly treated or had even tried to farm. Agriculture Department reviewers found reams of suspicious claims, from nursery-school-age children and pockets of urban dwellers, sometimes in the same handwriting with nearly identical accounts of discrimination.
Yet those concerns were played down as the compensation effort grew. Though the government has started requiring more evidence to support some claims, even now people who say they were unfairly denied loans can collect up to $50,000 with little documentation.
As a senator, Barack Obama supported expanding compensation for black farmers, and then as president he pressed for $1.15 billion to pay those new claims. Other groups quickly escalated their demands for similar treatment. In a letter to the White House in September 2009, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a leading Hispanic Democrat, threatened to mount a campaign “outside the Beltway” if Hispanic farmers were not compensated.
Career litigators, who had successfully defended the Agriculture Department all the way to the Supreme Court, were aghast:
The payouts pitted Mr. Vilsack and other political appointees against career lawyers and agency officials, who argued that the legal risks did not justify the costs.
Beyond that, they said it was legally questionable to sidestep Congress and compensate the Hispanic and female farmers out of a special Treasury Department account, known as the Judgment Fund. The fund is restricted to payments of court-approved judgments and settlements, as well as to out-of-court settlements in cases where the government faces imminent litigation that it could lose. Some officials argued that tapping the fund for the farmers set a bad precedent, since most had arguably never contemplated suing and might not have won if they had.
Be sure to read it all, but it’s difficult to argue with Byron York’s assessment of the story:
Today Andrew Breitbart is smiling, and probably amazed: New York Times goes deep into Pigford scandal. http://t.co/i62QKD6EO1
— Byron York (@ByronYork) April 26, 2013
Perhaps now that the New York Times has exposed this, a few lawmakers might get shamed into doing something about it. That would really put a smile on Andrew’s face.
Addendum: In early 2011, I interviewed Andrew about Pigford — or rather, asked him a question and then filmed his answer for 20 minutes. I also live-blogged a press conference Andrew and Lee conducted at CPAC that year, which included some of the original litigants who ended up getting run over by Ag in the settlement structure.
Update: Added “in the lurch” in the first paragraph, which somehow got forgotten when I posted it. Thanks to Jules F for the catch.