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Published March 29, 2011, 10:24 AM

USDA taking requests for settlement information for female, Hispanic farmers

WASHINGTON — In an attempt to end the discrimination cases that female and Hispanic farmers have brought against the Agriculture Department, the federal government has begun accepting requests for settlement information. But a lawyer for the Hispanic farmers has filed another case, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked March 22 for a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on civil rights practices at USDA.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — In an attempt to end the discrimination cases that female and Hispanic farmers have brought against the Agriculture Department, the federal government has begun accepting requests for settlement information.

But a lawyer for the Hispanic farmers has filed another case, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked March 22 for a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on civil rights practices at USDA.

Female and Hispanic farmers can file requests for information packages at www.farmerclaims.gov, a website established in February by the agriculture and justice departments after the Obama administration announced it had a plan for settling the claims. An independent arbitrator will be hired to process the claims, and the packets, to be used to establish claims, will be sent out this summer, according to the website.

The settlement that Vilsack and Justice Department officials announced in February would provide $1.3 billion for Hispanic and female farmers who suffered discrimination in their farm loan applications or the servicing of the loans between 1981 and 2000. Individual settlements are limited to $50,000.

Justin DeJong, a spokesman for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, emphasized in an interview with Agweek that the settlement offer is an option — female and Hispanic farmers still are free to file individual discrimination cases against USDA .

‘Close the chapter’

Vilsack has been working to “close the chapter” on discrimination at USDA and avoid future civil rights suits, DeJong said.

“Secretary Vilsack envisions a cultural transformation at USDA, which has led to a comprehensive effort to train employees, correct management deficiencies and ensure compliance so that there is no disparity in program benefits based on race, color, sex, age, sexual orientation or disability,” De Jong said. “It is Secretary Vilsack’s goal that the USDA achieves Abraham Lincoln’s vision of ‘the people’s department’ where each employee and customer is treated fairly and equitably.”

Unfair settlement?

Lawyers for both Hispanic and female farmers have complained that the settlement is not fair compared with the settlements made to African American and Native American farmers. Government lawyers have noted that the courts granted those farmers class status to pursue their claims, but denied it for the Hispanic and female farmers. The total settlement to African American farmers is expected to reach $2.25 billion.

Stephen Hill, a lawyer for the Hispanic farmers in the case Garcia v. Vilsack, filed a new lawsuit in the District Court of the District of Columbia March 15, alleging that the settlement was discriminatory and unconstitutional because it treated the Hispanic and female farmers “unfairly, unequally and disproportionately” compared with the African American and Native American farmers.

Hill’s suit claims that the federal government has violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fifth Amendment.

Marc Fleischaker, an attorney for the female farmers in Love v. Vilsack, said his clients “agree with most of the concerns expressed [in Hill’s suit] and are continuing to work on revising the program to make it more inviting. We have not made a decision to join in the litigation at this point.”

Hearing request

Meanwhile, Grassley wrote Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., to request a hearing on civil rights at USDA, noting that he has made the request of other Agriculture chairmen.

“The department has overcome numerous obstacles and made some progress in this area, but the successes are few and far between,” Grassley wrote. “When the Office of Civil Rights was set up, it was expected to provide leadership and direction for the fair and equitable treatment of all customers and employees of the Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately, it seems that the division that was set up to oversee discrimination complaints is the very one being accused of inadequately addressing the complaints.”

Grassley said in his letter that the Government Accountability Office recommended that USDA hire a civil rights ombudsman, but De Jong noted that USDA had agreed in its settlement of Keepseagle v. Vilsack, the Native American case, to hire an ombudsman. The problems and reports that Grassley cited date from 2006 and 2008, and De Jong said that if a hearing were held Vilsack would testify to the progress USDA has made.

In a memo, De Jong noted that every Washington-based USDA political appointee has attended civil rights trainings and that USDA has offered that training to Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Rural Development leadership and staff at state offices in more than a dozen places that have a history of problems in this area. The memo said that this was the first time such training sessions have been conducted with state leadership at USDA.

The memo also noted that USDA has established the Office of Advocacy and Outreach to improve access to USDA programs and enhance the viability and profitability of small farms and ranches, beginning farmers and ranchers, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and named a senior adviser for tribal relations.

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