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Why are USDA officials off the hook in case of bias against black farmers?

As President Obama signs a taxpayer-funded settlement in case of bias against black farmers, some Americans ask: Why didn't any heads roll? Ex-USDA employee Shirley Sherrod is one.

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"It might be somewhat difficult to be able to establish responsibility for something that may have occurred 20 or 30 years ago," Vilsack told reporters in a phone conference. "I think what we ought to be doing is focusing ... on making sure we're serving today's farmers as well as we possibly can."

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Critics, however, ask how Vilsack's attempt to reform the USDA can be effective when key officials responsible for discrimination are not singled out.

Some conservatives argue that USDA failure to punish certain career officials, many of whom still are in place in county offices across the US, is an indication that the Pigford settlement is less about USDA practices and more about righting generic historical wrongs to score political points with the Democratic base, including blacks.

“They admit to no wrongdoing, they press the taxpayers and apparently have succeeded in squeezing $2.3 billion out of the taxpayers, but they don’t have any blame, and they’re not punishing anybody,” Representative King said recently. “So, how can Americans that think logically accept that as a rational position?"

Sherrod herself struck a similar tone in a July interview on NBC's "Today" show.

"Discrimination happens in USDA.... And it's there because the agency never did deal with the people who caused it," Sherrod said. "No one lost their job because they discriminated against black farmers, Hispanic farmers, Native American farmers, women farmers.... Those individuals ... some have retired, but many of them are still there."

Speaking last week in Battle Creek, Mich., Sherrod – who was part of the New Communities Cooperative in the 1970s, the largest black cooperative in the country – hailed the passage of Pigford II, which could pay out an average of $50,000 to as many as 80,000 black claimants.

Sherrod, who is unemployed, was quoted in the Battle Creek Enquirer as saying, "This doesn't solve everything. But at least this brings some type of resolution to the matter. It's good to see that – at the least – this country will do something for these farmers out there who still need justice."

As it turns out, Sherrod and her husband, Charles, a college professor, are beneficiaries of the settlement through her involvement with the New Communities Cooperative. They stand to get $300,000 from the settlement, and members of the cooperative may collectively get as much as $13 million – the largest award included in the Pigford II settlement.

Meanwhile, some commentators have raised the question of how Sherrod was even hired by the USDA while she had a claim against the agency, and whether that fact played a role in her dismissal.

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