Was Shirley Sherrod Fired from USDA for Other Reasons Than Race Speech?

Is there more to the Shirley Sherrod story than the White House has let on - and the media has discovered? While the mainstream media continues to focus on the more sensationalistic, scandalous aspects of the story, a number of bloggers have unearthed facts that suggest further effort is needed to figure out Sherrod's dealings with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sherrod's involvement is not at all clear, nor is there definitive evidence of any wrongdoing. But Sherrod's sudden presence in the spotlight has led to investigations that turn up some strange numbers.

In short, the 2008 farm bill earmarked $1.25 billion to compensate a predicted total of 86,000 African American farmers for discriminatory practices against them. But according to the Census Bureau, there are were 39,697 African American farmers in the nation in 2007, and even fewer in previous years.

This week the Obama administration announced it does not have the funds to pay that $1.25 billion. Yet the administration also announced that it will pay $1.5 billion in relief to farmers in Arkansas, leaving some wondering whether the recall of the $1.25 billion was more a matter of choice than necessity.

But first, some background. In 1997, 400 African American farmers sued the USDA, alleging discrimination in subsidy policy, and a range of other areas over the preceding 15 years. In the resulting court case, Pigford v. Glickman, the USDA agreed to pay $50,000 to each farmer. By then, the suit had become a class action, and USDA expected to have to pay roughly 2,000 farmers. 22,505 joined the suit.

Two years later, the USDA agreed to pay 16,000 of those farmers the agreed-upon $50,000 in compensation - just over $1 billion in total. But according to the USDA, a full 70,000 additional farmers claimed that they had submitted petitions for damages, but that those petitions were received late due to bureaucratic incompetence or poor legal representation.

The matter remained unresolved until 2008, when Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Barack Obama, D-Ill., teamed up to earmark $1.25 billion in that years farm bill to pay the outstanding claims.

But the 70,000 farmers who say they were wrongly denied damages plus the 16,000 who received $50,000 from the federal government exceeds the total 26,785 African American farmers present in the United States in 1999, and the 39,697 present today.

Then this week, seemingly out of the blue, the administration announced that it does not have the funds to pay out that $1.25 billion. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are outraged, claiming that "if the administration can find $1.5 billion within its administrative funds to pay mostly white farmers in Arkansas and other states, it should be able to pay black farmers who suffered discrimination."

They have a point. Something sketchy is going on here.

As for Sherrod's role in the case, the farm cooperative owned by her and her husband was awarded a $13 million settlement last year, shortly before she was appointed to her post at the USDA. In addition, each of the Sherrods was paid over $150,000 for their "pain and suffering" - more than triple what was given to any other farmer, total.

All of these facts point to some sketchy practices at the USDA. Those practices, it seems, only came to light due to increased public attention given Sherrod and the USDA. Still, the mainstream media is fixated on the more sensationalist aspects of the story. It should turn its attention towards what could be a serious case of political malfeasance.

As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Willie Brown wrote on Sunday, "you don't fire someone without at least hearing their side of the story unless you want them gone in the first place."

Is the administration trying to prevent further investigation of USDA discrimination compensation policies?