USDA settles Native American lawsuit

Federal officials announced Tuesday that they had settled a decade-long class-action lawsuit brought by Native American farmers who accused the Agriculture Department of discrimination.

The Keepseagle litigation was filed in 1999 and stems from allegations of discrimination in the USDA farm-loan program dating to the early 1980s.

The $760 million agreement will help "turn a page" on the department's "tragic" civil-rights past, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters.

"Today's settlement can never undo wrongs that Native Americans may have experienced in past decades, but combined with the actions we at USDA are taking to address such wrongs, the settlement will provide some measure of relief to those alleging discrimination," he said.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs also hailed the agreement for providing farmers and ranchers the "justice they deserve."

Under the terms of the settlement, which must still be approved by a U.S. District Court judge, the government will provide $680 million in damages and $80 million in debt forgiveness. Native American farmers seeking compensation may file claims with independent arbitrators, who will determine each claim's validity, Vilsack said.

The settlement will not require congressional approval because the money will come from the government's judgment fund, Assistant Attorney General Tony West said.

Vilsack, whose tenure has been marked by the controversial firing of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod over allegations of farm-program discrimination, said he has made civil rights a priority. He vowed to seek resolutions in the department's other pending cases, including the class-action Pigford II lawsuit brought by black farmers.

In a statement Tuesday, President Obama praised the Keepseagle settlement and also called on Agriculture to resolve the remaining cases.

"With today's agreement, we take an important step forward in remedying USDA's unfortunate civil-rights history," he said. The Keepseagle settlement "underscores the federal government's commitment to treat all citizens fairly."

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