Toxic Relationship

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This summer, the mainstream media spent much time and energy discussing the case of Shirley Sherrod, an Obama appointee in the Department of Agriculture (USDA) who spoke indiscreetly about racism and reverse-racism at that agency. Internet provocateur Andrew Breitbart posted a video of Sherrod’s remarks (made to a regional NAACP convention); the video turned out to have been edited so that Sherrod seemed to be endorsing racist behavior. She insisted that the full context of her story was a lesson in learning not to judge people by the color of their skin.

Along the way, she was fired from her post, then offered another job, after President Obama concluded that her firing had been a mistake by poltroon USDA head Tom Vilsack.

The details of Sherrod’s words and employment woes are unimportant. The critical lesson is that the USDA has become a cesspool of bad management.

Case in point: in 1997, a group of 400 black farmers sued the USDA, alleging that between 1983 and 1997 they had been systematically denied government loans because of racial discrimination. The black farmers won their case (called, in Dickensian fashion, Pigford v. Glickman) and, in 1999, the USDA agreed to pay $50,000 or more to any black farmer who’d been denied a loan during the period described in the lawsuit.

Lawyers for the farmers and the USDA agreed that many claimants would have trouble meeting the burden of proof in demonstrating that they’d been discriminated against illegally. So, they set up two “tracks” for claimants: one would require only minimal evidence (“Track A”) and would result in a fixed $50,000 payout; the other (“Track B”) would have to meet the standards of a civil case and had no cap on how much could be awarded in damages.

By the government’s estimate, up to 2,000 farmers would qualify for settlement payments. True to form, this estimate was wrong. Wildly. Some 22,500 farmers applied for settlement money. Over the next decade, the USDA shelled out close to $1 billion to aggrieved agricolae.

That wasn’t the end of it. More than 73,000 additional people applied for cash awards, but the USDA rejected their applications for various reasons, most often that the forms had been filed after a court-approved deadline. But an obscure provision in a 2008 farm bill allowed rehearing in civil court for any claimant whose application had been denied because of the deadline. So, earlier this year, the USDA agreed to pay another $1.25 billion.

One problem with these numbers: According to various editions of the USDA’s “Status Report: Minority & Women Farmers in the U.S.,” there were only 18,816 black farmers in 1992, and similar numbers during the years covered by the Pigford claims. So, how do fewer than 20,000 farmers end up multiplying into more than 90,000 claimants? Some call this “Chicago math” because, as a senator and presidential candidate, Barack Obama supported the extension of Pigford money to those who’d missed the original deadline. Others call it “slavery reparations under a different name.”

Aside from highlighting continued managerial incompetence at the Department of Agriculture, what does the multi-billion-dollar Pigford settlement have to do with Shirley Sherrod?

Quite a bit. Sherrod and her husband received millions in settlement of Pigford-related claims they made on behalf of New Communities, an agricultural cooperative that they’d run unsuccessfully. After New Communities failed, the Sherrods claimed that its failure had been the USDA’s fault. The group’s $13 million “Track B” settlement included $150,000 each to Sherrod and her husband for the pain and suffering they experienced.

So, Shirley Sherrod began her tenure at the USDA after settling claims against it. Is it any surprise that this plaintiff- employee spoke indiscreetly about her adversary-employer?

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