ALBANY, Ga. -- In April of 1999, Judge Paul L. Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia approved a settlement agreement and consent decree in Pigford v. Glickman, a class action discrimination suit between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and black farmers.
The suit claimed that the agency had discriminated against black farmers on the basis of race and failed to investigate or properly respond to complaints from 1983 to 1997.
According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, "For many years, black farmers had complained that they were not receiving fair treatment when they applied to local county committees (which make the decisions) for farm loans or assistance. These farmers alleged that they were being denied USDA farm loans or forced to wait longer for loan approval than were non-minority farmers."
"Many black farmers contended that they were facing foreclosure and financial ruin because the USDA denied them timely loans and debt restructuring."
To date, more than $1 billion has been paid in $50,000 increments to more than 13,000 black farmers. The rub is, according to Buena Vista farmer Eddie Slaughter, many of the recipients of the settlement money are not farmers at all.
According to a July 2010 report by Kate Pickert in Time.com, the largest single settlement under Pigford went to Shirley and Charles Sherrod, who were awarded $150,000 each for pain and suffering and $13 million for the defunct New Communities Inc. farms.
"They are paying non-farmers while the bona fide black farmers are the ones who suffered the injustice," said Slaughter, one of 157 farmers who brought the original suit in 1997, said. "The problem is there is so much money that the lawyers got involved, telling people how to fill out the claims and how to get around not having a farm ID number.
"I know people who have gotten this money and they are not farmers. A lot of black folks look at it as reparations. But this is supposed to be about saving black farms, not reparations. If they want reparations, let them file their own lawsuit."
"Pigford turned into 'The Trail of Tears' for black farmers," said Obie Beal, another of the original 157 farmers. "I haven't gotten a dime from the settlement. In fact, I've spent over $25,000 of my own money trying to get justice."
Of the five farmers The Herald spoke to Monday, Slaughter is the only one to have received a $50,000 check from the settlement. Slaughter said that his claim was later denied and he is currently paying back the government $238 a month from his Social Security check.
None of the five farmers said he received promised debt relief.
Joe Leonard Jr., USDA assistant secretary for civil rights, was out of the office and unavailable for comment Tuesday morning.
Alarmed by what they regarded as rampant fraud, Slaughter, Beal and four other black farmers met with Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr., D-Albany, in his Columbus office on Dec. 30, 2008, to voice their concerns.
"We asked him several times about this fraud," Slaughter said in a video interview with Lee Stranahan. "We asked, why don't you have them tell you how many of these people who are getting this money have an actual farm ID number and are actual farmers?
"(Bishop responded) 'no, no, no, man, they'll shut this thing down."
Stranahan's video is posted on TheHuffingtonPost.com and on Andrew Breitbart's BigGovernment.com website, which also originated the video footage of a Coffee County NAACP meeting that resulted last year in the forced resignation of Shirley Sherrod as USDA Georgia Rural Development Director.
The initial clip on BigGovernment.com showed Sherrod admitting that she refused to give her full effort for a white farmer, but the full video of her speech showed the incident was a turning point for her on race relations and that she went back to the farmer and helped him with his problems. The farmer confirmed that Sherrod had been instrumental in keeping his family on its farm.
The USDA offered Sherrod another job with the agency after the full unedited video was made public, but she declined the offer.
Bishop last week confirmed meeting with the farmers, but when asked if he warned the farmers about shutting down the program, the congressman answered, "Absolutely not."
But Willie Head of Pavo and Lucious Abrams of Waynesboro support Slaughter's story of the meeting.
"I can verify he (Bishop) said every word of that," Head said. "I was sitting right across the desk from him when he said it."
Abrams, a county commissioner for Burke County, agreed.
"He (Bishop) absolutely said it," Abrams said."We all heard it. But I'll tell you this, we were better off before we filed the lawsuit. (The USDA) has taken discrimination and turned it into persecution."
Bishop did not address the farmers' allegations, but instead issued a statement.
"The Pigford-Cobell legislation signed into law last month included unprecedented safeguards to address any issues of fraud or abuse of funds awarded to compensate victims of discrimination in the Pigford settlement," Bishop said. "I am confident that the USDA will use these tools as Congress intended to ensure that taxpayer dollars awarded in the settlement only go to deserving individuals, and I will work with the USDA to ensure that the program meets this high standard."