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Published May 23, 2009, 07:16 AM

Farmers prepare for trial

An attorney for American Indian farmers suing the government over alleged farm loan discrimination says the group continues to prepare for a trial despite statements by the Obama administration indicating a willingness to resolve such disputes.

By: By Blake Nicholson, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun

BISMARCK — An attorney for American Indian farmers suing the government over alleged farm loan discrimination says the group continues to prepare for a trial despite statements by the Obama administration indicating a willingness to resolve such disputes.

Joe Sellers, the lead attorney for the farmers, said his Washington, D.C.-based firm has been lining up witnesses for the trial.

A mid-September conference is scheduled with the court. Sellers said a trial date might be set then.

“By then ... we will have reviewed nearly 1 million pages of documents and gone through large volumes of loan data, as well as taken or defended over 80 depositions,” Sellers said. “We’ll have a very substantial factual record that can be presented to the court for trial.”

Indian farmers in the 1999 class-action lawsuit allege they lost at least $500 million because of loan discrimination at the federal Agriculture De-partment over the past three decades. Keith and Claryca Mandan of Mandaree are lead plaintiffs.

The possibility of an out-of-court settlement re-mains.

President Barack Obama is proposing that the government provide $1.25 billion to settle similar discrimination claims by black farmers against the Agriculture Department. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a memo to staff last month said he intends “to take definitive action to improve USDA’s record on civil rights.”

Sellers said that while he would not rule out a settlement, “we have yet to see any evidence from the Agriculture Department that they have the desire to follow up these broad statements.”

Chris Mather, a spokeswoman for Vilsack, said the agriculture secretary is working to resolve all civil rights lawsuits against the department, including one filed by Hispanic farmers. “He’s taking these cases one at a time and he’s hoping to deal with all of them,” she said.

Vilsack has suspended foreclosures under the department’s farm loan program to review loans involving possible discriminatory conduct, Mather said.

“This is truly an issue that he cares about deeply,” she said. “It’s something he wanted to deal with right out of the gate.”

Sellers said the Indian farmers group offered to meet with Vilsack but that his only response was that he was still setting up a plan for proceeding on civil rights matters.

“That was a month ago. We have not received any further word,” Sellers said.

Indian farmers and ranchers say local USDA officials denied them loans that instead went to their white counterparts and refused to restructure loans in bad years as was done for whites. Their estimate of damages was developed by an economist hired as an expert witness who used government loan and population data.

Sellers said the estimate will be revised this summer, using data from the new federal Census of Agriculture. The census is done every five years.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, whose reservation straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border, planned a Saturday meeting at a casino near Cannonball, N.D., to update area farmers about the lawsuit. Gary Marshall Sr., a consultant for the tribe, said about 200 people are expected.

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