Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration agreed Thursday to provide $1.25 billion to compensate African American farmers who alleged racial discrimination by the Department of Agriculture farm loan programs.
The deal, subject to congressional approval, would set up a nonjudicial claims process that would allow farmers to seek damage awards or debt relief.
This is in addition to more than $1 billion the federal government paid to settle about 16,000 claims that were part of a discrimination suit black farmers brought against the department. The farmers won that suit in 1999.
"The agreement reached today is an important milestone in putting these discriminatory claims behind us for good and in achieving finality for this group of farmers with long-standing grievances," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus had sought to reopen the lawsuit after thousands of farmers missed the original filing deadline to apply for compensation. Members of the caucus met with U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and Vilsack to express their concerns.
In May, President Obama requested an additional $1.15 billion in the 2010 budget to close the long-standing lawsuit against the department.
"Today is a historic day for the American people," said John W. Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Assn. "We have finally buried the hatchet."
"I'm very pleased that the settlement has come to pass . . . because I've worked on it for 20 years," he said. "This is long overdue for people who've been long overlooked."
Holder said there possibly could be two tracks for farmers to seek claims. Those who establish their credit-related claims will be entitled to receive up to $50,000 and debt relief; a separate track may provide actual damages of up to $250,000 through a more rigorous process.
But Holder, in a statement, cautioned that the actual value of awards might be reduced based on the total amount of funds made available and the number of successful claims.
Under the Obama administration, the Department of Agriculture has sharpened its focus on civil rights, hiring field investigators for the first time since 1997 -- even suspending all foreclosures in the Farm Service Agency's loan program for 90 days last April to review loans for any discriminatory conduct.
In a statement, Obama commended Vilsack and the Justice Department for "bringing these long-ignored claims of African American farmers to a rightful conclusion."