(Newsroom America) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture is set to offer Hispanic and women farmers some $1.33 billion in payments to settle charges of past discrimination over the agency's denial of loans.
When he took office in 2009, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack declared "a new era of civil rights" in a memo to employees, saying he would work with President Obama to establish an environment where there would be "zero tolerance for any form of discrimination," according to a department statement posted online.
The recently announced settlement is part of that policy, officials said, noting that during the eight years of the Bush administration most claims of discrimination went unaddressed.
"Hispanic and women farmers who believe they have faced discriminatory practices from the USDA must file a claim by March 25, 2013 in order to have a chance to receive a cash payment or loan forgiveness," Vilsack said in a statement Monday. "The opening of this claims process is part of USDA’s ongoing efforts to correct the wrongs of the past and ensure fair treatment to all current and future customers."
In February 2011, Vilsack announced a historic "path to justice for Hispanic and women farmers" by offering them an opportunity to take part in a settlement without having to go to court.
"When I was sworn in as secretary of Agriculture two years ago, President [Barack] Obama and I made a commitment to mend USDA’s troubled civil rights record," he said at the time. "Since then, we have taken comprehensive action to turn the page on past discrimination. Last year we entered into a settlement with black farmers in Pigford II to address pending claims, and finalized a historic settlement agreement with Native American farmers under Keepseagle that faced discrimination by USDA."
The Pigford II settlement covered black farmers who alleged they were discriminated against when applying for loans from 1981 to 1996, but who missed the filing deadline in 1999 for the original settlement.
The settlement was named after the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the government, Timothy Pigford. When it was announced, the settlement made headlines over allegations of fraud.
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