Vilsack is hopeful the House takes quick action “because we’d like to put this chapter at USDA behind us. Then, we’ll focus on other cases pending against the department.”

The cases have been in court for decades, said Perrelli, and have been “incredibly hard-fought. Both judges and Congress have repeatedly urged the parties to settle and there’s never been any doubt that significant sums were necessary to resolve them….

“With respect to Pigford II, in the 2008 farm bill, Congress gave new claims to African American farmers who’d submitted late claims to the original Pigford settlement. Working with the USDA, we at DOJ took that class of individuals … didn’t make one additional person eligible, and saw that we could fight this for years in court or see if there was a more responsible way to resolve it. We think this settlement does that.”

Vilsack said USDA operations are currently under review to make sure the agency “isn’t making the same mistakes made 20 years ago.” That report is due at the end of December.

Looking at claims during the last Bush presidency “we found, roughly, 3,000 claims that required further investigations and 600, or so, that might very well lead to claims. We’ve asked Congress to take a look at that in terms of the statute of limitations.”

Congress, said Vilsack, has yet to respond.

If the funding is approved, how long before payments reach claimants?

“I don’t know that anyone can give a good estimate,” said Vilsack. “Obviously, an individual arbitrator … has to be appointed with the consent of all engaged. That person/s will have to set up shop (and review claims).

“That will take some time. We want to make sure it’s done right and, as it is looked at by the comptroller general or inspector general, there aren’t any problems. We’ll take the time required to do it right with the understanding that folks have waited a long time.”

Vilsack was also asked about the USDA facing discrimination cases involving Hispanics and women.

“We are engaged in an effort to provide opportunities for a quicker resolution for individual claimants (in the cases involving Hispanics and women). They are different than the Pigford II cases because there was no congressional directive or a certification of the courts of a class. So, these are individual claims…

“What we hope is that in the not-too-distant future we’ll see how to set up a process where those claims will at least have the option of resolving their dispute with the government case-by-case.”

Asked if the Obama administration has decided not to punish USDA employees for past discrimination, Vilsack said his focus “has been on making sure we don’t get the government in the same situation it’s been in (over the) last 20 or 30 years.” That means “taking a look at our current practices and procedures and making sure we’re not making the same mistakes again, intentionally or unintentionally…

“I think it might be somewhat difficult to be able to establish responsibility for something that may have occurred 20 or 30 years ago. I think what we ought to be doing is focusing … on making sure we’re serving today’s farmers as well as we possibly can.”

Perrelli fleshed out the anti-fraud measures in the Pigford settlement. “The Pigford II settlement arises out specific legislation out of Congress that created a class of individuals of between 65,000 and 66,000 individuals who’d filed claims late in the original Pigford settlement…

“With respect to fraud, the government’s liability is capped. That provides some protection.

“More directly, there is an independent adjudicator who is responsible for making sure the process is fair and without fraud. They are directed, if there is any concern about fraud, to seek additional, appropriate information. … There will (also be) multiple audits that will focus across the whole.”

dbennett@farmpress.com