Probe prompts review of black farmers’ case

John Boyd, looks over corn on his farm in Baskerville, Va.Steve Helber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Accusations against an attorney who worked on a federal case in which black farmers claimed the government denied them loans because of their race could affect the landmark civil rights settlement.

Margaret O’Shea, 38, faces charges she worked as a public defender without a license to practice law in California, and critics are now questioning dozens of individual settlements with black farmers she previously handled at the U.S. Justice Department.

"It's a disgrace
O’Shea worked on the federal case, known as Pigford vs. Veneman, from April to September 2002. She was hired by the Monterey County Public Defender’s Office in August.

“It’s a disgrace,” said John Boyd, a Virginia farmer who is president of the National Black Farmers Association. “After all we’ve been through, we had an unlicensed attorney reviewing cases and affecting the lives of black farmers across the country.”

It is still unclear exactly how O’Shea was involved in the federal case and whether revelations about her status as an attorney could lead to individual settlements being overturned.
O’Shea and her attorney, Enda Brennan, did not respond to repeated telephone calls over several days seeking comment.

Arianne Callender, a lawyer for the advocacy group Environmental Working Group, said the Justice Department should review all the cases O’Shea handled.

“The farmers may have made different decisions during negotiations if they had known the lawyer they were working with wasn’t licensed to practice law,” Callender said.

O’Shea has been charged with one count of grand theft for cashing paychecks under false pretenses and one misdemeanor count of practicing law without a license. She is scheduled to be arraigned Monday.

Millions awarded to black farmers
The charges came after supervisors in the public defender’s office learned she was not licensed to practice law in California. The county is reviewing 86 cases she handled during a three-week period ending in late September.

A subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee is investigating O’Shea’s involvement in the federal case, said Todd Lindgren, a spokesman for the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller would not comment on the nature of O’Shea’s work or whether the department was investigating her role.

To date, thousands of black farmers have received awards totaling more than $650 million under Pigman vs. Veneman. But about 40 percent of the 22,000 farmers have been denied payments. Some 73,000 others claim they were shut out because the settlement deadline was not advertised widely enough, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group

Thousands of black farmers, most from the South and Midwest, sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1997 alleging discrimination when they applied for crop loans and subsidies.

In 1999, the department agreed to a landmark settlement in which individual farmers could receive $50,000 each if they could demonstrate they did not receive the same treatment as comparable white farmers.