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Butterfield applauds Pigford funding

WASHINGTON, DC – Congressman G. K. Butterfield applauded Tuesday’s vote to approve funding to settle African American farmers’ and Native Americans’ lawsuits against the federal government.

The measure had recently gained majority approval in the U.S. Senate.

“Passing this legislation means finally living up to our obligation to farmers who deserved much better from their federal government,” Butterfield said. “It brings an end to an unfortunate chapter in our history.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 256-152 to approve funding $4.5 billion in settlement agreements that have long been winding their way through Congress. The funds will settle thousands of racial discrimination claims by African-American farmers and accusations of federal mismanagement of American Indian trust accounts.

Butterfield said the legislation authorizing the settlements now heads to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign the bill.

The vote in the House was also pleasing to another North Carolina federal legislator.

“For decades, the federal government has failed to live up to its obligation to our country’s African American farmers,” said U.S. Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC). “Since coming to the Senate, I have worked with my colleagues to right this wrong for farmers in North Carolina and across the country. Today, we are finally giving our farmers the justice they deserve.”

Hagan has worked closely with Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) to ensure 4,000 African-American farmers in North Carolina and 75,000 nationwide can receive settlements.

The legislation would provide $1.15 billion to settle up to 74,000 outstanding claims by black farmers that they were discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 1983 and 1997 – the so-called Pigford II claimants. This settlement agreement was reached in February, and builds upon an initial $100 million authorized by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill.

It would also provide $3.4 billion to settle a class action suit by Native Americans against the Department of the Interior. The case was settled in December, 2009. Both cases required appropriated funds to begin compensation of eligible claimants.

On April 14, 1999, the court approved a settlement agreement – known as Pigford – for all claims raised in the class action suit. The suit claimed that black farmers were discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the basis of race. Review of the claims began almost immediately, and the initial disbursement of checks to qualifying farmers began on November 9, 1999. The case was named for lead plaintiff and Beaufort County native Timothy Pigford.

Butterfield explained that a number of problems emerged from claims process. Due to circumstances such as Hurricane Floyd, many filed too late to be considered or did not have their claims judged on the merits.

For the large number of farmers who did not have their cases heard on the merits because of late filings, a process for so-called Pigford II petitions was established by the 2008 Farm Bill. The new process provided up to $100 million for potential settlement costs. The Obama Administration had requested an additional $1.15 billion for these potential settlement costs in its FY2011 budget.