USDA says it wants to resolve Indian farmer claim

AP News
Posted: Nov 06, 2009 5:51 PM

The Obama administration intends to seek resolution to a lawsuit filed by American Indian farmers who alleged discrimination in the granting of federal agricultural loans over three decades.

The lawsuit, filed in 1999, contends Indian farmers and ranchers lost about $500 million during the past three decades because of discrimination in lending from the Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency. The agency issues loans to farmers and ranchers who cannot get credit from commercial lenders.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Indian farmers and ranchers during a meeting Thursday that the department was "committed to resolving" litigation involving them.

On Friday, Justice Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the case is expected to be considered again by the court early next year. While it "would be premature to discuss settlement" at this time, she said the Agriculture and Justice departments "will give fair consideration to settling claims based on the facts and circumstances of each case."

The lawsuit, named after George Keepseagle, a Fort Yates, N.D., rancher, claimed the Agriculture Department denied or delayed loans or failed to approve enough money for tribal farmers and ranchers.

Indian farmers and ranchers have said local USDA officials tried to squeeze them out of business by denying them loans that instead went to their white neighbors and by refusing to restructure loans in bad years as was done for whites.

"It's a detriment to us to have to be put in a position where, truly, the non-Indian farmers and ranchers are getting all the help and we're not," said Cedric Black Eagle, chairman of the Crow Tribe in southeastern Montana.

The plaintiffs estimate that Indian farmers lost out on more than $14 billion in loans from 1981 to 2006. The loans would have generated $462 million to $491 million in income, according to the estimate.

The case was granted class-action status in 2001 and the plaintiffs have said they are ready to go to trial. But they have expressed hope the Obama administration would consider a settlement, pointing to a similar one that USDA reached with black farmers under President Bill Clinton in 1999. The government has paid damages of $980 million in that case even as it has fought the Indian lawsuit in court.

Vilsack, during a daylong meeting of the Obama administration with tribal leaders, said his department realized that "we, too, have litigation going on for a considerable period of time involving farmers and we're committed to resolving this."

Along with damages, the plaintiffs are seeking changes in the way the USDA administers its loan programs, as well as a moratorium on foreclosures against struggling Indian farmers and ranchers.

American Indians also are seeking billions of dollars from the government in a separate lawsuit that claims they were swindled out of oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties administered by the Interior Department since 1887.