Having passed the Senate, the $4.6 billion Claim Settlement Act of 2010 is now in the hands of the House. The legislation – which bundles together settlements for Pigford II, Cobell (brought by Native Americans against the Interior Department over the management of Indian trust accounts and resources) and four Native American water rights cases – is expected to be voted on in early December.

On Monday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli addressed the settlements and how the claims process will be set up. While keen to point out efforts to root out any fraud, Vilsack made it clear it is unlikely anyone at USDA will be punished for the discrimination that was the basis for Pigford.

“President Obama has been very clear with me … that we’re to treat farmers, ranchers and growers equally and fairly,” said Vilsack. “That means not only making sure we’re doing the right things today but righting the wrongs from the past.

“Civil rights has become a top priority of mine since coming to USDA and we’ve implemented a comprehensive program to learn from past errors, to learn from our mistakes, and take definitive action to ensure all our customers are treated fairly. We’ve conducted civil rights training in our FSA locations, doubled our compliance reviews and seen the lowest number of FSA complaints since we began keeping records.”

Also on the USDA agenda: “cultural transformation. Today, we have the lowest number of equal employment opportunity complaints since the department began keeping track.”

Vilsack spoke on how claims will proceed, assuming House passage of the settlement funding.  

“First, the proposal passed by the Senate and agreed upon by USDA, lays out a very complicated and detailed method for individuals filing a claim seeking compensation. They must qualify as a class member (which means they must have filed a ‘late-filing request’ under the original Pigford consent decree sometime after October 1999 and prior to June 2008). If they aren’t on the current ‘timely’ list of those who filed late requests, they’ll have to provide significant and independent documentary evidence that they had, in fact,” made such a filing.

In addition to being a member of the class, claimants “also must furnish a detailed, complete claim form. If they’re represented by counsel, that will include a statement by the attorney (representing the claimant under penalty of perjury) that the claim is based on existing law and factual contentions are true and correct.”

The eligibility/payment process will include “a number of steps inherent in the review of these claims by the comptroller general and USDA’s inspector general. (This will) ensure we’re performing the settlement process appropriately … and paying those who are entitled to payment.

“Payments will not be forthcoming until the court has ultimately approved the final accounting of expenditure funds made available in the appropriation.”