Shirley Sherrod's Disappearing Act: Not So Fast

|
Opinion Zone,Tom Blumer

My oh my, that happened quickly. Perhaps too quickly.

Until yesterday, Shirley Sherrod was Georgia Director of Rural Development for the USDA. Earlier in the day at Big Government, Andrew Breitbart put up a video that exposed Ms. Sherrod as someone all too willing to discriminate based on race.

Within hours of the video's release, USDA Director Tom Vilsack announced Sherrod's resignation, and in the process issued an exceptionally strong condemnation ("We are appalled by her actions ... Her actions were shameful ... she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done to this man").

The NAACP, at whose Freedom Fund Banquet Sherrod spoke of her discriminatory posture, and at which the audience seemed to indicate approval of her outlook, followed a short time later, virtually echoing Vilsack.

So I guess we're supposed to forget about Shirley Sherrod from this point forward.

Not just yet. Luckily, she's not going away quietly, and is complaining about Fox News and the Tea Party causing her dismissal. Keep it up, ma’am, because you and the USDA both deserve further scrutiny.

Ms. Sherrod's previous background, the circumstances surrounding her hiring, and the USDA's agenda may all play a part in explaining her sudden departure from the agency. These matters have not received much scrutiny to this point.

An announcement of Ms. Sherrod's July 2009 appointment to her USDA position at ruraldevelopment.org gives off quite a few clues:

RDLN Graduate and Board Vice Chair Shirley Sherrod was appointed Georgia Director for Rural Development by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on July 25. Only days earlier, she learned that New Communities, a group she founded with her husband and other families (see below) has won a thirteen million dollar settlement in the minority farmers law suit Pigford vs Vilsack.

What?

The news that follows at the link, which appears to pre-date the announcement of Ms. Sherrod's appointment, provides further details:

Minority Farm Settlement

Justice Achieved - Congratulations to Shirley and Charles Sherrod!

We have wonderful news regarding the case of New Communities, Inc., the land trust that Shirley and Charles Sherrod established, with other black farm families in the 1960's. At the time, with holdings of almost 6,000 acres, this was the largest tract of black-owned land in the country.

... Over the years, USDA refused to provide loans for farming or irrigation and would not allow New Communities to restructure its loans. Gradually, the group had to fight just to hold on to the land and finally had to wind down operations.

... The cash (settlement) award acknowledges racial discrimination on the part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the years 1981-85. ... New Communities is due to receive approximately $13 million ($8,247,560 for loss of land and $4,241,602 for loss of income; plus $150,000 each to Shirley and Charles for pain and suffering). There may also be an unspecified amount in forgiveness of debt. This is the largest award so far in the minority farmers law suit (Pigford vs Vilsack).

The Pigford matter goes back a long way, and to say the least has a checkered history, as this May 27, 2010 item at Agri-Pulse demonstrates (bolds are mine):

As part of a April 14, 1999 class action case settlement, commonly known as the Pigford case, U.S. taxpayers have already provided over $1 billion in cash, non-credit awards and debt relief to almost 16,000 black farmers who claimed that they were discriminated against by USDA officials as they “farmed or attempted to farm.” In addition, USDA’s Farm Service Agency spent over $166 million on salaries and expenses on this case from 1999-2009, according to agency records.

Members of Congress may approve another $1.15 billion this week to settle cases from what some estimate may be an additional 80,000 African-Americans who have also claimed to have been discriminated against by USDA staff.

... Settling this case is clearly a priority for the White House and USDA. Secretary Vilsack described the funding agreement reached between the Administration and advocates for black farmers early this year as “an important milestone in putting these discriminatory claims behind us for good and in achieving finality for this group of farmers with longstanding grievances."

However, confronted with the skyrocketing federal deficit, more officials are taking a critical look at the billion dollars spent thus far and wondering when these discrimination cases will ever end. Already, the number of people who have been paid and are still seeking payment will likely exceed the 26,785 black farmers who were considered to even be operating back in 1997, according to USDA. That’s the year the case initially began as Pigford v. (then Agriculture Secretary) Glickman and sources predicted that, at most, 3,000 might qualify.

At least one source who is extremely familiar with the issue and who asked to remain anonymous because of potential retribution, says there are a number of legitimate cases who have long been denied their payments and will benefit from the additional funding. But many more appear to have been solicited in an attempt to “game” the Pigford system.

Here are just a few questions about Ms. Sherrod that deserve answers:

  • Was Ms. Sherrod's USDA appointment an unspoken condition of her organization's settlement?
  • How much "debt forgiveness" is involved in USDA's settlement with New Communities?
  • Why were the Sherrods so deserving of a combined $300,000 in "pain and suffering" payments -- amounts that far exceed the average payout thus far to everyone else? ($1.15 billion divided by 16,000 is about $72,000)?
  • Given that New Communities wound down its operations so long ago (it appears that this occurred sometime during the late 1980s), what is really being done with that $13 million in settlement money?

 

Here are a few bigger-picture questions:

  • Did Shirley Sherrod resign so quickly because the circumstances of her hiring and the lawsuit settlement with her organization that preceded it might expose some unpleasant truths about her possible and possibly sanctioned conflicts of interest?
  • Is USDA worried about the exposure of possible waste, fraud, and abuse in its handling of Pigford?
  • Did USDA also dispatch Sherrod hastily because her continued presence, even for another day, might have gotten in the way of settling Pigford matters quickly?

 

The media and the blogosphere shouldn't be so quick to forget about Shirley Sherrod.

View article comments Leave a comment