- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Agriculture Department plans to review more than 14,000 civil rights complaints that have been filed against the agency since 2000.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said only a small number of those complaints were eventually decided against the department and that 3,000 of the complaints have not even been processed.

“This issue has lingered too long,” Vilsack told reporters Tuesday.

Vilsack said the department would create a task force to review a sample of the complaints filed in the last nine years, supported by an independent legal counsel.

Charges of discrimination at the department are nothing new. Black farmers, mostly from the South, have long complained that they have been consistently denied loans, grants and other assistance by a “good old boy” network of local USDA field offices. Hispanic and American Indian farmers have also filed lawsuits against the department.

Vilsack said he will temporarily suspend foreclosures under the department’s farm loan program to review loans involving possible discriminatory conduct. The department will also start collecting better data about who is receiving help at local field offices, he said.

In 1999, the government settled a class-action lawsuit from black farmers, agreeing to pay $50,000 plus tax benefits to those who could show they faced discrimination. The government has paid out nearly $1 billion in damages on almost 16,000 claims.

Congress reopened the case for additional settlements in a wide-ranging farm bill enacted last year, though neither Vilsack nor the White House have said whether the administration will be able to fully fund those settlements. The farm bill limited the amount at $100 million, but it could easily cost $2 billion or $3 billion given an estimated 65,000 pending claims.

Vilsack said that paying the $100 million is “not necessarily the only step” in settling the remaining claims.

“There is a willingness on the part of USDA to get this matter resolved,” he said.

John Boyd, head of the National Black Farmers Association, which has organized the lawsuits, said the department’s announcement Tuesday is a step in the right direction, but is not enough.

“Anything less than paying the black farmers what they owe them right now is really unacceptable at this point,” Boyd said.

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