WASHINGTON (AP) — The government is offering American Indian farmers who say they were denied farm loans a $680 million settlement.
The two sides agreed on the deal after more than 10 months of negotiations. The government and the Indian plaintiffs met in federal court Tuesday to present the settlement to U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan.
The agreement also includes $80 million in farm debt forgiveness for the Indian plaintiffs and a series of initiatives to try and alleviate racism against American Indians and other minorities in rural farm loan offices. Individuals who can prove discrimination could receive up to $250,000.
President Barack Obama said in a statement that the settlement takes an important step forward in remedying the Agriculture Department's "unfortunate" civil rights history, saying the agreement "helps strengthen the nation to nation relationship and underscores the federal government's commitment to treat all citizens fairly."
A hearing on preliminary approval of the deal is set for Oct. 29. Sullivan indicated he was pleased with the agreement, calling it historic and coming down off his bench to shake hands with lawyers from both sides.
Assistant Attorney General Tony West and Joseph Sellers, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, both said they were encouraged by the judge's positive reaction.
"Based on the court's comments, we're optimistic," West said after the hearing adjourned.
The lawsuit, named after George and Marilyn Keepseagle of Fort Yates, N.D., was filed in 1999 and contends Indian farmers and ranchers lost hundreds of millions of dollars over several decades because they were denied USDA loans that instead went to their white neighbors. The government settled a similar lawsuit filed by black farmers more than a decade ago.