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WASHINGTON - Congress gave the final go-ahead Tuesday to a landmark $1.2 billion settlement compensating black farmers for decades of discrimination, even as Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann and other conservatives charged that the deal is riddled with fraudulent claims.
The long-delayed package, negotiated by the Obama administration, could award some $50,000 each to thousands of African-Americans who claimed they were unjustly denied loans and assistance from the federal Agriculture Department in the 1980s and '90s. Right up until the final 256-152 vote in the House, Bachmann -- along with Iowa Republican Steve King and others -- called for an investigation of the settlement, known as Pigford II.
"This looks like one of the most outrageously fraudulent claims of scamming the federal taxpayers that anyone has ever seen," Bachmann said in one of her first major forays since she tried to win a post in the new House Republican leadership. "It's indefensible."
Bachmann's outspoken criticism sparked a war of words with John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, as well as with Minneapolis Democrat Keith Ellison, the state's first and only black representative in Congress.
Boyd, one of the architects of the deal, criticized Bachmann for inserting herself in the longstanding dispute, noting that her family farm received more than $250,000 in farm subsidies over the past decade while the Pigford case was being litigated.
"She got hers, and black farmers have been systematically shut out of the farm subsidy program," Boyd said on his way to the Capitol to witness the historic vote on the measure that passed the Senate earlier this month.
Bachmann responded that she has never received "one penny" from her in-laws' family farm in Independence, Wis., even though she reported between $15,001 and $50,000 in "farm income" on her federal financial disclosure forms this year. She and her husband also list a stake in the farm valued at up to $250,000.
Bachmann emphasized that any subsidies going to the farm were for her in-laws. "I'm very proud of them," she said. "They came to the United States essentially to get away from socialism in Europe."
There are no known plaintiffs in the Pigford case from Minnesota, according to Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat who helped craft parts of the settlement as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Disagreement over numbers
But one close observer is Minneapolis agricultural consultant Collie Graddick, an African-American who grew up on his father's 200-acre vegetable and livestock farm in Hamilton, Ga., a part of the country that was heavily represented in the settlement.
"I remember my father asking for twice as much as he needed whenever he needed a loan, because he knew he was only going to get half," Graddick said. Were his father still alive, Graddick added, "he would be marching on Washington with the rest of those black farmers."
As one of the leading critics of the deal, Bachmann argued that taxpayers are being fleeced because the Pigford case involves as many as 94,000 claims, while there are currently only about 18,000 black farmers in the United States.
"This is a simple math problem," she said during the House debate leading up to a largely party-line vote. In the Minnesota delegation, Republicans John Kline and Erik Paulsen joined Bachmann in opposing the settlement.
Peterson said the reason there are more claims than black farmers is that most simply went out of business in the 1980s, an era of widespread foreclosures and severe shrinkage in agriculture generally. "The reason they're not farming is they couldn't get financing," he said. "That's part of their argument."
Ellison called Bachmann's argument about the numbers of black farmers a "fabrication" akin to her recently discredited suggestion that Obama's trip to India cost $200 million a day. "It's a lie. L-I-E," he said.
Bachmann countered her critics by noting that despite allegations of widespread racism and bigotry, not a single federal employee has been sanctioned for discrimination in the Pigford class-action suit, which she described as a rush for "free money" by people who had little to do with farming.
Boyd said some of the plaintiffs are the descendants of sharecroppers and other poor black farmers across the rural Southeast.
"If you look at it historically, every black person in this country is probably one or two generations from somebody's farm," he said.
In addition to the settlement with the black farmers, another $3.4 billion would go to American Indians who have battled in court for nearly 15 years over claims they were cheated out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department for resources such as oil, gas and timber.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.