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U.S. PAYOUT TO BLACK FARMERS MAY HIT $1 BILLION

Lawyers representing black farmers predicted Saturday that the U.S. Agriculture Department will pay $1 billion under a settlement of a class-action lawsuit that alleged discrimination in awarding loans and other aid.

About 150 black farmers met with attorneys, who answered questions and distributed claim forms as part of a settlement approved by a federal judge Jan. 5.

The agreement gives a tax-free payment of $50,000 to black farmers who claim the Agriculture Department discriminated against them between 1981 and 1996.

Lead attorney Alex Pires told farmers in Selma that the settlement "is the largest recovery in the history of the country" in a discrimination case and will put money directly in farmers' hands.

"This case will end up giving people probably a billion dollars because there are thousands of people who have already called in" to obtain claim forms, Pires said.

"In Alabama alone, 500 people have called in. In Mississippi, 400 or 500 people," Pires said. "It's going to be a very large sum of money."

Pires said he expects more than 5,000 farmers to file claims.

Similar meetings to help farmers file claim forms are scheduled next month in Jackson, Miss.; Albany, Ga.; Richmond, Va.; and Pine Bluff, Ark.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has called the case "a painful chapter in USDA's history," and has said that past discrimination problems stemmed from the dismantling of the department's Civil Rights Office during the Reagan administration.

The farmers claimed they were systematically denied government loans, disaster relief and other aid because of their race and that they did not get a fair hearing at the USDA when they appealed.

In addition to the $50,000 payment, the settlement would excuse black farmers' debts to the USDA, which average between $95,000 and $100,000.

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