Boy, are we going to be hearing about this for a long time. A simmering bureaucratic fiasco is about to have its day in the media sun, I think.
In the winter of 2010, after a decade of defending the government against bias claims by Hispanic and female farmers, Justice Department lawyers seemed to have victory within their grasp.
Ever since the Clinton administration agreed in 1999 to make $50,000 payments to thousands of black farmers, the Hispanics and women had been clamoring in courtrooms and in Congress for the same deal. They argued, as the African-Americans had, that biased federal loan officers had systematically thwarted their attempts to borrow money to farm.But a succession of courts — and finally the Supreme Court — had rebuffed their pleas. Instead of an army of potential claimants, the government faced just 91 plaintiffs. Those cases, the government lawyers figured, could be dispatched at limited cost.They were wrong.On the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling, interviews and records show, the Obama administration’s political appointees at the Justice and Agriculture Departments engineered a stunning turnabout: they committed $1.33 billion to compensate not just the 91 plaintiffs but thousands of Hispanic and female farmers who had never claimed bias in court.The deal, several current and former government officials said, was fashioned in White House meetings despite the vehement objections — until now undisclosed — of career lawyers and agency officials who had argued that there was no credible evidence of widespread discrimination. What is more, some protested, the template for the deal — the $50,000 payouts to black farmers — had proved a magnet for fraud.“I think a lot of people were disappointed,” said J. Michael Kelly, who retired last year as the Agriculture Department’s associate general counsel. “You can’t spend a lot of years trying to defend those cases honestly, then have the tables turned on you and not question the wisdom of settling them in a broad sweep.”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. [More of a must read investigatory story]
There is simply nothing good in this scandal - even if you are a bitter opponent of the president or USDA or minority action efforts. The scope, political malfeasance, judicial system failure, and pandemic bad judgement will stoke outrage and justify already hardened opinions about all involved.
While credit must be given to the right-wing media for attacking this program earlier, there is one curious thing about their complaint: lack of any followup effort to prove their assertions of wrongdoing.
The article contains a lot of surprising revelations, but the article itself is a sort of surprise in that it appeared in the New York Times and not Fox News or the National Review or any of the conservative media outlets that are already champing at the bit to roast liberals who had supported Pigford for their malfeasance. The right wing has been whining about Pigford for years. But rather than do the legwork to expose the true problems underlying the program, Breitbart and his ilk were content to put out misleadingly edited videos of Shirley Sherrod to try and smear the USDA as being a haven for "reverse" racism.Mother Jones' Kevin Drum has a good and simple lesson on why Pigford got out of hand: "You can either set a high bar for evidence of discrimination, knowing that it will unfairly deny compensation to lots of people who were treated wrongly. Or you can set a low bar, knowing that this will unfairly give money to lots of people who don't deserve it."But that explanation won't change the fact that many will look at Pigford as further evidence that blacks are lazy takers and that federal programs intending to right America's historical and racist wrongs are always wasteful. In other words, it's going to give fuel to racists who will in turn go on discriminating against blacks and Latinos, who will in turn push for institutions to help them get ahead in a racist country. Lather, rinse, repeat. [More]
So why do I think the almost-certain celebration of vindication over this truly monumental scandal could be problematic for conservatives? I remember video loops of Jeremiah Wright and his truly awful blend of activism and religion. I think the replays of his inflammatory language soon convinced many like me the man was a fringe figure and embarrassed the overwhelming majority of minority members. Just like modern redneck reality shows, having these sterotypes rubbed in your face does not encourage rapprochement with political opponents who are trumpeting them. I just can't imagine the right not running this non-stop for as long as possible. Efforts by Republicans to make inroads to minorities won't be helped, regardless of the justification.
For the administration it is a major failure and deserved embarrassment. For Vilsack, it should cost him his job. For the USDA, another massive piece of hard evidence of bureaucratic incompetence and political subservience. This isn't going to boost generous farm bill prospects, either, IMHO as a result of damning-by-proximity. For direct-to-farmer loan programs, this could be the death knell. (Okay, I think the last two actually pluses)
For Republicans who supported actions to settle/fund the case years ago just to get it over, a one-note Tea Party primary opponent may suddenly appear, if they don't have one already. For trial lawyers, another stereotype is reinforced, and litigation reform gains a little steam, especially for class action suits. For a justice system as a whole, more public trust is shamefully squandered by corrupt motives and actions.
And even for claimants who rightfully, or more likely, wrongfully receive a windfall, sad experience shows few will handle it well. In the process, they may have reset racial antagonism to a point that should have distant history.
In fact, I don't see any real winners here, except the economy a teensy bit. The vast majority of the awards will be spent quickly - a micro-stimulus, if you will. Much of the legal fee, of course, will likely head to Grand Cayman.
And perhaps, after reflection across the media spectrum, the oft-despised NYT will begin to remind people what good investigatory journalism looks like.