Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack hit back at critics of the settlement reached between the government and African-American farmers who say they were discriminated against by the Agriculture Department. Conservatives said the legislation, which President Barack Obama is set to sign into law today, has the potential for fraud.
TPM asked at a news conference this morning what the government was doing to combat fraud in the Pigford settlement.
“I think we have in place appropriate steps and we must recognize that what we’re doing here is compensating for acts of discrimination that took place some time ago,” Vilsack told reporters in response to a question from TPM. “There’s no question that happened and there’s no question the time has come for us to close that chapter in U.S.D.A. history and in civil rights.”
Holder said the Justice Department would take fraud very seriously.
“The fraud concern is legitimate, and one that I think the secretary has indicated has been addressed in the past and we’ll continue to use those mechanisms to implement this new settlement,” Holder told reporters. “But what cannot be lost is what the secretary also said: this is a settlement that addressed a historical wrong. It’s something that this country is not about and should not be about.”
“This Secretary of Agriculture pushed this, he really pushed this,” Holder said. “This has been something that Tom Vilsack has made a personal commitment to resolve. I’m proud of what we have done.”
For years, the USDA regularly denied loans and grants to farmers simply because they were African-American. But some conservatives, including writers with Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government, have claimed that there was “massive fraud” in the first Pigford settlement and have said the latest settlement will “line the pockets of the President’s closest political allies.”
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) went as far as to claim that the settlement was a form of reparations for slavery.
“It’s a sad chapter in our history, but hopefully one we can put behind us and ensure that it never happens again,” Holder said.
Vilsack said the process of approving the payouts would include the inspector general of the U.S.D.A. and the comptroller general. Lawyers will have to certify under the penalty of perjury that what they are representing on behalf of their clients is true and accurate, Vilsack added.
“I think there are significant safeguards that have been placed in the settlement process in addition to those that would occur just generally, which is a review by an independent arbitrator and adjudicator,” Vilsack said.