Battle brews anew over case of Indian money

Federal judge to hear arguments about $380M left over from USDA discrimination settlement.

By Jonathan Ellis, Argus Leader

A federal judge Monday will hear opinions on what to do with $380 million left over from a settlement that was meant to reimburse Native Americans who were discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

District Judge Emmet Sullivan has received hundreds of comments, most of them from Native Americans who argue the money should be distributed in another round of payments — a move that the federal government opposes.

The money is left over from a 2011 settlement with the USDA. In 1999, a group of Native Americans sued the government, arguing that USDA discriminated against Native American farmers and ranchers who sought loans from the department. USDA paid $680 million and another $80 million in debt relief to settle Keepseagle v. Vilsack, a similar move the department made to settle other lawsuits brought by minority groups.

The settlement established a claims process for Native Americans who alleged discrimination, and it included a provision that any leftover money would be distributed to nonprofit groups that help Native American farmers and ranchers.

At the time, the parties figured about $1 million would be left over once the claims were processed, said Joseph Sellers, the class counsel. But in the end, there were only about 3,600 successful claimants — far fewer than originally estimated.

“We realized we were going to have a lot more money left over,” Sellers said.

Some of the claimants who received payments wanted another round of disbursements. But the federal government opposed another round of payments because officials did not want Native American farmers and ranchers to receive more money than what blacks, Hispanics and other minorities received in their settlements, Sellers said.

Gwen Sparks, a USDA spokeswoman, declined to comment.

After negotiations, the government agreed to allow the remaining money to be put into a trust. If approved, 10 percent would be distributed to nonprofits by an advisory board, and the remaining 90 percent would be distributed during the next 20 years by a foundation to nonprofits that help Indian ranchers and farmers.

Absent the agreement, the federal government could have demanded that the remaining money be returned, Sellers said.

But the agreement is deeply unpopular with many of the Native Americans who received payments. They argue that, as victims of discrimination, they should receive the leftover money.

In a motion filed last month, Marilyn Keepseagle, one of the original class litigants, said that the victims of discrimination were Native American farmers and ranchers, not the charitable organizations that would get the money. Keepseagle proposed that the money either be paid out to the 3,600 successful claimants, or that another claims period be opened for Native Americans who did not file a claim the first time.

“The ends of justice demand that this money should be distributed to the class members instead of providing a historic and unwarranted payout for charitable organizations,” Keepseagle said in her motion.

Marshall Matz, a lawyer representing Keepseagle and other Native Americans who want another disbursement, said a legal question persists regarding who owns the leftover $380 million.

“It’s a fascinating legal question,” he said.

Matz predicted that whatever happens, an appeal is likely.

“I don’t know why you would need a foundation — to create a foundation — to do unspecified good things when you can give the money to the people who can prove they were damaged,” Matz said.

StrikeForce initiative aims to lift impoverished counties

Some North Dakota counties that are not experiencing the oil boom and growth that have brought the state into the national limelight. These counties are now the target of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s StrikeForce initiative, which aims to stimulate economic growth.

By: Katherine Grandstrand, Forum News Service

Published April 05, 2013, 07:30 AM Grand Forks Herald

DICKINSON, N.D. — The prosperity seen in North Dakota is unmatched anywhere else in the country. As of February, the state’s unemployment rate sat at 3.3 percent.

For some Americans, North Dakota is like Israel was to the Jews in the book of Exodus — a land flowing with milk and honey. Modern-day pilgrims come to North Dakota because it is flowing with oil and manufacturing jobs.

Pitted against this image are some North Dakota counties that are not experiencing the boom and growth that have brought the state into the national limelight. These counties are now the target of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s StrikeForce initiative, which aims to stimulate economic growth.

“We do have areas of consistently high poverty,” said Jasper Schneider, state director of USDA Rural Development for North Dakota. “Official unemployment rates in these counties are upwards of 15 percent. Unofficial unemployment is actually quite a bit higher than that.”

Before last week, six states — Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada — were part of the program. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s announcement expanded StrikeForce to include 10 more — the Dakotas, the Carolinas, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

In North Dakota the program will target Benson, Rolette and Sioux counties along with the tribal nations of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Spirit Lake Tribe and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” Schneider said. “With our resources, both on the state level and the federal level, we have an enormous opportunity to pick up all parts of the state — especially our lowest performing parts,” Schneider said.

The StrikeForce promotes existing USDA agencies and programs to encourage economic growth in impoverished counties — 90 percent of all poor counties are considered rural.

“We kind of throw our full weight at these areas of high poverty and see if we can’t move the needle,” Schneider said.

In Nevada, which was part of the second wave of states to use the StrikeForce initiative, USDA representatives first reached out to the tribes, which helped grow trust between them and the agency, said Bill Elder, assistant state conservationist for operations for Nevada Natural Resources Conservation Service and the StrikeForce state coordinator.

“We identified the Native American as the priority underserved community within Nevada,” he said from his Reno, Nev., office. “The leadership of the Rural Development, of FSA — the Farm Service Agency — and NRCS went to each one of these tribes and sat down with them and said, ‘Look, we’re here, and these are the programs and services that we offer.’ ”

Because StrikeForce is an umbrella program for all USDA agencies, it allows them to work together more efficiently to serve those eligible and identify individuals who may qualify for programs through other USDA agencies, Elder said.

“At the end of year one, what this had done for us was open pathways of communication that we otherwise wouldn’t have,” he said. “If we can articulate what it is we have to offer both in terms of programs and technical services so they can make an informed decision about what’s best for them, that’s the home run.”

In its second year, Nevada expanded the program to include outreach to small farmers by having a presence at pertinent events, such as agricultural shows.

“Geographically speaking, it’s fairly easy to do,” Elder said. “We gain visibility, we are able to have one-on-one contact with people, find out what their issues are, make them aware of program opportunities and services, and that’s really the key, is that one-on-one or the small-group contact.”

One of the first StrikeForce efforts in North Dakota will have USDA representatives at the Looking to the Future sustainable agriculture convention from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. today at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, said Aaron Krauter, state executive director for the USDA Farm Service Agency.

His agency plans to use the StrikeForce initiative to promote FSA programs and loans that could help farmers and ranchers succeed and grow, Krauter said.

“We also have real estate loans for individuals that are eligible if they want to purchase that pasture land or that quarter of crop ground,” he said.

USDA Rural Development released the Tribal Progress Report on Thursday, which highlights the USDA grants and loans the tribes of North Dakota have taken advantage of since 2009.

Many of those funds were used to improve the tribal colleges, Schneider said.

“I’m a firm believer that one of the best ways to combat persistently high poverty is through education,” Schneider said. “We made it a priority at USDA to partner with the tribal colleges, and they’ve really become first-class campuses and provide the opportunity of a real quality postsecondary education. They’re probably the best example of what’s going right in our tribal communities.”