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Obama to sign bill awarding payments to black farmers: justice or 'fraud'?

President Obama signs a law Wednesday aimed at rectifying USDA actions that undercut black farmers. Some conservatives call it 'modern-day reparations' that reward political friends.

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Jimmy Dismuke, a black hog farmer from Arkansas, claims he's seen fraud first-hand in the Pigford process. In a recent story published at Big Government.com, a conservative website, Mr. Dismuke says he has counted more than 300 fraudulent Pigford claims in Arkansas alone, including a case in which people who kept potted tomato plants claimed to be farmers and got $50,000. He also claims that private lawyers made the rounds in black churches, enticing potential claimants with easy payouts.

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"Pigford is the biggest rip-off this country has ever known, and there are lots of people in positions of power that know it," Dismuke writes. "Politicians are using it to buy votes. Trial lawyers are using it to get rich."

Proponents say the discrepancy between the number of claimants and actual numbers of black farmers is exactly what the legislation seeks to redress. In the 1980s and '90s, thousands of black families lost their farms, the USDA has acknowledged, in part because they were unfairly denied loans or were approved for smaller loans than white farmers received.

Dallas lawyer Augustus Corbett, who grew up on a North Carolina farm, calls the USDA's past actions part of a broader "conspiracy," especially in the South, designed to let primarily white developers buy up black-owned farmland for pennies on the dollar.

Bipartisan support for the bill is tied to three layers of fraud protection, including the appointment of an independent trustee who Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says will conduct "multiple audits that will focus across the whole." Under the previous Pigford settlement, USDA investigators found only three instances of fraud among 15,000 claims.

The law Obama signs Wednesday also includes a $3.5 billion settlement process for 500,000 Native Americans who claim that the Interior Department mishandled billions in timber and mining royalties on Indian lands.

Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa has called for hearings on the Pigford settlement after Republicans take control of the House in January.

Claims that the settlements are a taxpayer-funded political ploy to enrich trial lawyers and reward the Democratic base may not register loudly, suggests Mr. Abramowitz at Emory, noting that the electorate is more concerned about the larger bailouts of corporate America.

"I think some of the claims that conservative groups have been making about fraud are greatly exaggerated, but, sure, there's always potential that there could be some fraudulent claims," he says. "But you have to weigh that against the injustice that was done."

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