Indian settlement seeks input

Charles Graham

WASHINGTON, D.C. — American Indian farmers and ranchers who are part of the Keepseagle v. Vilsack class action lawsuit are being asked by the court to comment on how approximately $380 million left in the settlement funds should be distributed.

A $760 million settlement was reached between American Indian farmers and ranchers and the United States Department of Agriculture in October 2010. The lawsuit claimed the USDA discriminated against American Indians by denying them equal access to credit in the USDA Farm Loan Program.

According to the lawsuit, USDA denied thousands of American Indians and ranchers the same opportunities to get farm loans or loan servicing that were given to white farmers and ranchers. The plaintiffs also claimed that the USDA did not do outreach to American Indian farmers and ranchers or provide them with the technical assistance they needed to prepare applications for loans and loan servicing.

Those involved in the class action included American Indian farmers and ranchers who farmed and ranched, or attempted to do so, between Jan. 1, 1981, and Nov. 24, 1999; American Indian farmers and ranchers who tried to get a farm loan or loan servicing from the USDA during the same period; and those American Indian farmers and ranchers who complained about discrimination to the USDA either on their own or through a representative during this same period.

The deadline for submitting claims was Dec. 27, 2011. A neutral individual appointed by the court determined which claims to grant and which to deny. Claims to American Indians in Robeson County were paid in 2012, but as of Wednesday the specific number of claims could not be obtained.

Because there is still so much money in the settlement fund, class members are being requested to comment on how they think the money should be distributed. According to the current 2010 settlement agreement, those funds can only be given to nonprofits that provide services to current American Indian farmers and ranchers and American Indians seeking to become farmers and ranchers.

There are now additional options for distribution of the remaining money under consideration. One option is for the funds to be placed in a trust with distribution being the responsibility of 13 American Indian trustees from across the country. If this option is approved, state Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat from Lumberton, could be approved by the court as one of the trustees.

Graham told The Robesonian on Wednesday that he believes the judge overseeing the settlement process is doing the “right thing” by letting those involved in the the lawsuit have some input in how the remaining $380 million should be distributed. He said he hopes the judge will also consider giving reconsideration to some of the claims that were originally denied.

“I am encouraging individuals whose claims were denied to submit them again to the judge for reconsideration,” Graham said.

Anyone wanting to share their views on how the remaining settlement funds should be spent can send comments in writing no later than June 15 to: Chambers of the Honorable Emmet G. Sullivan, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, 333 Constitution Avenue N.W., Washington D.C. 20001. Do not send new claims.

There will also be a hearing on the settlement issue at the U.S. District Court in Washington on June 29.