Pigford Fraud Workshop Still Draws Huge Crowds After NYT Exposé

On Friday, April 26th, the New York Times ran a front page exposé on the Pigford farmers settlement scandal. The Times article ended with the story of Tom Burrell, the head of a group called the Black Farmers Agricultural Association, who still travels around the country giving workshops allegedly instructing people how to commit undetectable fraud in the farmers settlements and receive tax free checks for $50,000.  

The Times article closed with this quote from Mr. Burrell:

He closed with a rousing exhortation: “Let’s get the judge to go to work writing them checks! They have just opened the bank vault.”

On Saturday, April 27th, Burrell was giving another series of workshops. This time, Burrell was in Houston, Texas; thanks to promotion from an article in the Houston Chronicle, Burrell was playing to an absolutely packed house at the Communications Workers of American union hall, a 4,000 square foot modern events facility. 

It was standing-room-only in the main hall, as about 500 people--the majority of them Afrcan-American--listened as Burrell took them step-by-step through the process of filing a successful claim in the Pigford black famers settlement. Meanwhile, dozens more waited outside for Burrell's next session in a line that ran around the building. The turnout was so large that two people in green vests were outside helping to direct traffic.

The event went on despite the Times devastating portrayal of Burrell and his workshop just the day before:

On a recent Thursday at the Greater Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, several hundred African-Americans listened intently as Mr. Burrell told them they could reap $50,000 each, merely by claiming bias. He left out the fact that black men are no longer eligible, and that black women are eligible only if they suffered gender, not racial, bias.

“The Department of Agriculture admitted that it discriminated against every black person who walked into their offices,” he told the crowd. “They said we discriminated against them, but we didn’t keep a record. Hello? You don’t have to prove it.”

In fact, he boasted, he and his four siblings had all collected awards, and his sister had acquired another $50,000 on behalf of their dead father.

She cinched the claim, he said to a ripple of laughter, by asserting that her father had whispered on his deathbed, “I was discriminated against by U.S.D.A.”

“The judge has said since you all look alike, whichever one says he came into the office, that’s the one to pay — hint, hint,” he said. “There is no limit to the amount of money, and there is no limit to the amount of folks who can file.”

The New York Times piece was not, of course, the first time that Burrell has been exposed. I personally interviewed Burrell two years ago at his office in Memphis, Tennessee, and Breitbart News secretly recorded one of his meetings over two years ago. Breitbart News released the entire audio of that meeting, showing that Burrell was clearly coaching people in how to commit undetectable fraud, at a press conference to kick off CPAC 2011.

The well-attended press conference in 2011 featured Rep. Steve King, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Georgia farmer Eddie Slaughter, and Andrew Breitbart. I did a presentation playing audio of Mr. Burrell explaining exactly how to commit fraud--the same presentation, more or less, that the Times wrote about and that Mr. Burrell gave this past weekend, down to the line about a father saying something on his deathbed. 

That 2011 press conference with clear proof of how Tom Burrell was teaching people to commit fraud--with nearly two hours of unedited, undercover audio presented as proof--was ignored by the mainstream media.

After the Times piece hit on Friday, however, online newsmagazine Slate ran an article by Dave Weigel entitled "Listen to a Seminar on How to Get Unearned Cash from a Government Settlement With Black Farmers" that focused on audio released by Breitbart News in 2011.

Burrell walks his audience through the easily-avoided traps keeping them from settlement cash.

"Judge says, here's my first question," says Burrell. "Did you own or lease or attempt to own or lease farmland?"

"I'm filing on behalf of my father," says the woman.

"Ah haaaa!" says Burrell. He walks through more possible issues, then re-casts the hypothetical question as a sob story.

"'The night before he died, he leaned over and told me 'Baby girl, I attempted to get that money,'" says Burrell. 

"I'm just telling you what Congress aid they'll do for you. Now you have to go home and pray about how you'll answer that."

For a very long time this story was a confusing-sounding distraction only mentioned by a few Republicans and conservative scribes. That's not true anymore.

It is entirely possible that the people being taken advantage of at these seminars are not the taxpayers but the seminar attendees themselves. As the Times reported:

Last October, a court-appointed ombudsman wrote that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people had given money to individuals and organizations in the belief that they were reserving the right to file a claim under the second settlement for black farmers, only to learn later that their names had never been forwarded to the authorities. People familiar with that statement said it was directed in part at Thomas Burrell, a charismatic orator and the head of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, based in Memphis.

Mr. Burrell has traveled the South for years, exhorting black audiences in auditoriums and church halls to file discrimination complaints with his organization’s help, in exchange for a $100 annual membership fee.

In an interview last month, Mr. Burrell said he had dedicated his life to helping black farmers after biased federal loan officers deprived him of his land and ruined his credit. He said his organization had misled no one, and had forwarded the names of all those eligible and willing to file claims.

Even though the filing for Pigford is closed, the women and Latno farmers settlements are still open for new claims. I saw only two people who might have been Hispanic or Latino in the crowd in Houston on Thurday, and the group seemed to be about half men. 

The seminar was promoted with a big story in Houston Chronicle by reporter Cindy George; it served more or less as an advertisement for the seminar and was published the day before the Times expose broke. The current version of the story attempts to walk back some statements made by Burrell but the turnout for the Saturday even was still massive. 

How has Burrell been able to get away with this for years?

One answer could be that exposing Burrell would mean exposing the entire Pigford scandal; something that, until now, the mainstream media seemed reluctant to do. 


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