Part III Of the Story “Black Farmers Discrimination”

But Wright disagrees. “I’m convinced he was never committed,” he said of Vilsack.

“They were basically taking people’s land.”

Not only did many farmers with SOL cases not receive relief, USDA actually foreclosed on some of them and attempted to foreclose on others before their cases were resolved—despite a moratorium, mandated as part of the 2008 farm bill, on exactly this practice.

According to Wright and another former civil rights employee, David, who asked that we use a pseudonym to protect his identity, a group of USDA officials moved to foreclose on farmers with SOL cases that were still under review. The group included representatives from the department’s loan agency, legal office, and civil rights office.

USDA was more than six times as likely to foreclose on a black farmer as it was on a white one.

David told us about one farmer on whom USDA started to foreclose, after he had already been put in a financially precarious position by the department’s discriminatory practices. “It was crazy,” David said. “They took his cows. Two of his cows died [as a result].… I mean, they were basically taking people’s land, marshals on their land. All this kind of stuff, right?”

Wright told us that when he insisted the group abide by the moratorium, they responded by trying to exclude farmers, often for dubious reasons, so the department could foreclose on them. At one point, David said, the group even attempted to exempt a farmer whose civil rights case had already been found to have merit, although he and his colleagues eventually persuaded the group not to do so.

David said he felt motivated by a sense of justice. “I felt so strongly about this issue, like, I used to tell my wife, I’d say, ‘I hit the lottery tomorrow, I’m still coming in every day to help these farmers,’” he told us.

The department not only dealt dismissively with black farmers with SOL complaints, but also foreclosed on all black farmers at an elevated rate. USDA records we obtained through a FOIA request show that the department foreclosed on black-owned farms at a higher rate than on any other racial group between 2006 and 2016. While black farmers made up less than 3 percent of USDA’s direct-loan recipients during that period, they made up more than 13 percent of farmers who were foreclosed on; the agency was more than six times as likely to foreclose on a black farmer as it was on a white one.

Joe Leonard, who, as Vilsack’s assistant secretary of civil rights, served as head of the civil rights office throughout the Obama administration, attributed the high level of foreclosures among black recipients of USDA loans to a lack of “financial literacy” among African Americans. “I’m not sure what the home ownership foreclosure rate [is among black people] … but I would think that it’s higher than the national average,” he said. “Financial literacy plays a key part in all of that.”

Left: Former Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. Right: Joe Leonard, Vilsack’s assistant secretary of civil rights

African Americans do have a higher home foreclosure rate than white Americans, but many scholars believe that housing and lending discrimination are the primary drivers of this disparity, not differences in financial literacy. A 2017 study, for example, found that African Americans in seven metropolitan areas were twice as likely to receive predatory mortgages before the 2008 financial crisis as were white Americans with the same credit score and risk factors.

David made similar arguments in response to Leonard’s analysis. “These farmers were not foreclosed on because they were financially illiterate,” he told us. “They were foreclosed on because they weren’t given the tools that they need to farm properly.” He noted that discrimination by USDA employees often left black farmers without the ability to purchase time-sensitive necessities like seeds, farm equipment, and crop insurance—the basics farmers need to stay in business.

New civil rights complaints fell to record lows

The department not only mishandled cases from the Bush years: Civil rights officials, including Joe Leonard, also took an unscrupulous approach to new complaints against the department, according to David and other USDA employees we interviewed.

Vilsack and Leonard repeatedly claimed that discrimination complaints against USDA fell to record lows while they served. In his exit memo, for example, Vilsack claimed that the department “had received the fewest complaints from program participants on record.”

“We had black farmers calling our office, screaming, crying for help.”

Both also stated, several times—including in letters to congressional representatives that we reviewed—that discrimination complaints against USDA’s lending agency, where most farmer complaints originate, fell by 70 percent under their watch. Until May 14 of this year, Leonard’s official biography, posted on a Washington, D.C. government website, said that total farmer complaints fell 90 percent during his eight years in office. (Leonard currently works for a senior advisor to Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C.)

But these claims are wrong in two ways. First, USDA does not have reliable records on discrimination complaints from before Vilsack’s term, so credible comparisons to previous years are impossible. Second, people with direct knowledge of the complaints process contradict Leonard and Vilsack’s specific claims and general narrative—as does USDA’s own data.

A number of federal reports have established that USDA does not have reliable records on discrimination complaints prior to Vilsack, which makes it impossible to verify whether discrimination complaints actually fell to record lows under his tenure. A 1997 USDA report, for example, noted that an investigative team was “unable to gather historical data on program discrimination complaints at USDA because record keeping on these matters has been virtually nonexistent.” A GAO report from 2008, less than a year before Vilsack entered office, stated that the department’s credibility to correct problems with its complaints process “continues to be undermined by faulty reporting of data on discrimination complaints…. Even such basic information as the number of discrimination complaints is subject to wide variation in [the civil rights office’s] reports to the public and the Congress.”

Samples of crops raised by black farmers sit on a table at the History House Museum, which chronicles the experiences of relocated black farmers in Tillery, North Carolina

Although USDA’s data should not be taken at face value, what records it does have further undermine Vilsack’s and Leonard’s claims. Data we received from a FOIA request show that the average number of complaints filed against the department’s lending agency under Vilsack was slightly higher than the average number of complaints filed in the last two years of the Bush administration, the only years for which data were available. The department has not responded to a request for data from years prior.

Department employees have also used USDA’s own data to disprove Leonard and Vilsack’s assertions. In 2015, Claudette Joyner, president of a local union representing USDA employees, used public data from reports submitted to Congress to debunk the claim that complaints against the department’s lending agency had fallen by 70 percent.

“Where is the Assistant Secretary getting his numbers from?” Joyner wrote, referring to Joe Leonard, in a letter addressed to union members. “Is he making them up or are they coming from the infamously unreliable civil rights databases?”

Leonard, David told us, was “basically padding the numbers in each state, saying the numbers had gone down, when our data was showing something different.” David, who said he had tried to help farmers covertly, described a different reality at USDA: “We had black farmers calling our office, screaming, crying for help,” he said.

David referred to a speech Leonard gave in 2011, in which he claimed that the number of complaints made by farmers had fallen to 37 in the previous fiscal year. “It was a joke in our division,” David said. “We had found [that many] in Alabama alone.”

In fact, between 2010 and 2012—the only years during the Vilsack administration for which relevant data were made available—Leonard’s public statements claimed 68 percent fewer “customer” complaints against USDA’s loan agency than the department’s own reports to Congress indicated.

When we asked Leonard about this discrepancy, he emailed us a statement, dated May 14, in which he wrote, “I reported what was presented to me by staff at that time and have since learned that some of those numbers were not accurate.” Leonard did not respond to our questions about how he got the wrong numbers or why he was unaware they were wrong, even though his office had submitted different ones to Congress.

“Everyone knew they were lying. The numbers weren’t jiving.”

David told us that people both inside and outside the confines of USDA had complained that Leonard’s numbers were incorrect. There were, he said, “countless letters, countless correspondence, countless phone calls from different farmers trying to get him to correct the record.” Several other civil rights office employees we spoke to told us that, within the office, Leonard’s numbers were widely known to be inaccurate.

“You can, you know, ask half of the fucking people that are still at USDA civil rights and they’ll tell you that’s just a big piece of bullshit,” David said, referring to Leonard’s claim that he was not responsible for the inaccurate numbers. “I mean, I don’t know what to say about that. That’s crazy.”

Although the farm bill requires USDA to issue reports every year with the number and status of the discrimination complaints it receives, the department has released only one of these reports since 2013.

Ron Cotton, current president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, asserted that the department stopped releasing these reports because they would have demonstrated that Leonard and Vilsack were “fudging” how many discrimination complaints the department received.

“They stopped because they could not verify the numbers,” Cotton wrote by email. “Everyone knew they were lying.”

“The numbers weren’t jiving,” he added, in a subsequent interview.

“That’s the stuff that’s killin’ us.”

While Leonard told us that there were fewer claims due to USDA’s efforts to improve its civil rights record, department employees and farmers we interviewed for this story dispute his reasoning. “When I was there, as a contractor, I labeled … the civil rights arm of the department as being nothing more than a ‘closing machine,’ in that they came up with every little knick and corner they could find as a reason to close a complaint,” said Wright. “Or not accept them to begin with.”

Wright, pictured next to hand tools inside a barn on his family farm

Wright said that when he asked for an explanation about why the department had closed a particular case from the Bush years, the staff in the civil rights office told him that the complainant “didn’t name the agency” that committed the offense. “Well, there’s only one agency in the Department of Agriculture that would make an operating loan,” he said.

David said office staff disqualified complaints in the way Wright described. “It’s the equivalent of a doctor punishing their patient because they don’t know the scientific terms to describe the pain or how they’re hurting,” he said. “‘Oh, you said ‘stomach,’ you didn’t say ‘abdomen’? Sorry, you’re out of here.’”

Wright said he thinks that after he left the department in 2012, the civil rights office continued these practices. “You need to understand that most of the people who operated under Joe Leonard were the people hired under Bush,” he said. “Joe Leonard came in and eventually brought all those people back in high positions and they continued their old ways,” he said, in a later interview. “Some of them are still there.”

“It’s all this undercover [stuff] that people can do. But then people can say, ‘I’m within the law.’ That’s the stuff that’s killin’ us.”

Leonard defended his record in numerous interviews, emails, and text exchanges with us, repeating many of the same claims he made during his time at USDA. In response to allegations that he had failed to address systematic discrimination against black farmers, he told us, “I’m proud of all the communities I was able to assist at USDA. Lloyd and others thought I was just supposed to assist African Americans. I had to defend everyone.”

Wright’s “only claim to fame is hating USDA,” Leonard later told us. “Lloyd’s not a professional, he’s a farmer, whereas I’m a professional,” he said. “He could run amok. I can’t run amok.”

When we asked Frederick Steiner, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, who had worked with Wright in the past, what he thought of Leonard’s characterization, he said, “I just can’t imagine anyone calling Lloyd Wright unprofessional. That just is shocking. And from my experience totally inaccurate.”

But even if the number of complaints really did decline under Vilsack’s watch, black farmers and advocates say that might not have had much to do with reduced discrimination.

“There’s fewer discrimination complaints, number one, because you got fewer black farmers,” said Sam, a black farmer who works with an organization that helps small farmers in the rural South. He asked us not to use his real name for fear of reprisal from USDA. “Number two, you had beat the [remaining] ones down so those don’t wanna fool with you.” Sam told us that discrimination has taken on new, less obvious forms in local USDA offices. “It’s all this undercover [stuff] that people can do,” he said. “But then people can say, ‘I’m within the law.’ That’s the stuff that’s killin’ us.”

Notices and press clippings from a variety of civil rights and social justice campaigns cover the walls at the offices of the Concerned Citizens of Tillery, which was founded in 1978 to organize around issues affecting African-American citizens of Tillery and Halifax County, North Carolina

Several members of his organization, along with farmers we talked to across the South, agreed with Sam’s assessment.

In one striking case, a black farmer in South Carolina, Charles McDonald, was repeatedly denied loans because USDA agents listed his crop yields as far lower than they actually were—a practice USDA agents have used for decades to deny loans to black farmers, as extensively documented by the historian Pete Daniel. Since USDA determined McDonald was not a productive farmer, even though he had won multiple awards for his corn production—including first place for corn yields at an agriculture expo in 1997—it repeatedly denied him loans, which caused him to lose over 700 acres, including land that his family had owned for over 100 years.

Although the case presented evidence of discrimination by a local USDA office—which also listed low yields for black farmers across the county—Vilsack’s department refused to settle with McDonald, and threatened at least one farmer testifying on his behalf with the loss of settlement funds. And after an administrative law judge ruled in McDonald’s favor in 2010, Wright said that Vilsack and Leonard actually considered overriding the judge’s decision. Wright also told us that he met with one of Vilsack’s chief aides in order to urge Vilsack to send a team to investigate black farmers’ yields in McDonald’s county and surrounding counties, and increase their listed values if needed. But, he said, Vilsack decided not to pursue the case any further. “He did zero. He didn’t do a damn thing.”

Vilsack denied in an email in May that he considered overriding the judge’s decision. “The matter was referred to OGC [Office of General Counsel] for final determination of payment or appeal. At no time did I suggest that his claim be ignored or not treated above board,” Vilsack wrote. “If it was appealed the decision to do so would have been made by OGC on what that office felt were good faith grounds.”

USDA failed to take disciplinary action against any of its employees in response to discrimination complaints brought by customers between fiscal years 2010 and 2012.

In the rare instance when the civil rights office did acknowledge that USDA employees had discriminated against black farmers, USDA’s documentation indicates that the department failed to discipline the offending officials. Between fiscal years 2010 and 2012, USDA “customers,” a category that includes farmers, among other recipients of USDA services, filed more than 2,800 discrimination complaints against USDA. Data posted on the department’s website show that it failed to take disciplinary action against any of its employees in response to discrimination complaints brought by customers during that period—the only years available for Vilsack’s term—even in cases where a USDA employee was found to be at fault.

We asked USDA officials for the number of personnel actions taken by the department in other years, information the department is required to post online under federal law, but they have not answered our repeated requests.

Soon after Vilsack left office, when a legal publication asked him how attorneys could help minority farmers, he said they needed to give them some tough love.

“They just can’t assume that every time they aren’t successful it’s because of discrimination,” he said. “I think you can do a service to your client by not only fighting hard for them, but also explaining why they didn’t get the help that they thought they were entitled to, and it wasn’t anything to do with the color of their skin or their culture or whatever. It just had to do with this is the way financial decisions are made.”

“They win at all costs.”

Interviews with 18 current and former civil rights employees at USDA indicate that the institutional structure supporting what Lloyd Wright called the “closing machine” may persist for some time. That’s in part because the office responsible for defending the department against complaints, USDA’s Office of General Counsel (OGC), has—contrary to federal law—long been involved with reviewing and closing discrimination cases.

Evangeline Grant, pictured with her brother, Gary Grant, a civil rights and social justice advocate

The department’s civil rights office is meant to guarantee the rights of people who say they have suffered discrimination from USDA employees. OGC, on the other hand, is an independent body that represents the department in legal proceedings.

Yet, numerous reports, along with current and former employees, have said that OGC has been involved in the civil rights office’s decisions for over a decade. This would be akin to suing the federal government, making your case, then watching the defense attorney disappear into his chambers, emerge in judge’s robes, and render his verdict.

Government Accountability Office reports from 2008 and 2009 found that OGC had been reviewing and resolving discrimination complaints received by the department. Every civil rights employee we asked, including Joe Leonard, said OGC was and still is heavily involved in the civil rights office. One current employee laughed, as if the question was absurd. Another employee said, “I often hear my managers say that whatever OGC says is what we’re going to do.” When asked if OGC’s involvement was a problem, still another employee said, “Yes, dramatically so.”

“Say a farmer does go through the process [and] they actually reach the level of having an actual complaint,” David said. “Dr. Leonard or whoever’s in that capacity [now] would consult with OGC and basically find a way to get it thrown away.” (Leonard holds a PhD in American history from Howard University, with a focus on civil rights history.)

“They make you very uncomfortable and they make you leave. They don’t want you there. This is what they do to their enemies. They all circle the wagons.”

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