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As he lay dying in a Great Falls hospital last month, Luke Crasco tried to smile.

Family members at his bedside read aloud news that the 66-year-old Dodson man had been waiting to hear for 10 years — a class action discrimination lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture charging that its loan officers discriminated against Native American farmers and ranchers had been settled.

Without admitting any wrongdoing, the government agreed to pay $680 million to settle claims alleging that the USDA had failed to treat Native Americans equally in its farm loan programs from 1981 to 1999. That will mean tens of thousands of dollars to Native American farmers and ranchers in Montana who can establish that they were denied loans, approved for a lesser amount than requested, received loans encumbered by restrictive conditions or did not get appropriate loan service from the department.

"His eyes popped open and his eyebrows raised," said Crasco's widow, Irene. "He knew we had won."

Crasco died less than a week later.

The list of named plaintiffs includes 142 from Montana and another two from Wyoming. Others in both states who meet eligibility requirements may also submit applications for compensation that could go as high as $250,000 per operator.

The settlement agreement reached Oct. 19 still has to be approved by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in the District of Columbia. He issued a preliminary approval Monday, but with time for appeals and other proceedings, final approval will probably not happen before next summer, said David Greenberg, a paralegal with Cohen Milstein, an East Coast law firm representing many of the claimants.

Although not every Native American farmer or rancher will qualify, the nation has a pool of 55,889 Indian operators, according to the 2007 U.S. Agriculture Census. The census showed 2,359 Native American operators in Montana.

Those who can establish discrimination could qualify for a portion of $680 million in compensation, plus an extra 25 percent to help cover any additional income taxes resulting from the settlement. They may also be eligible for forgiveness of USDA loans from an $80 million fund that is part of the agreement. The total settlement package will add up to about $760 million.

In addition, the settlement includes a moratorium on foreclosures and loan acceleration for Native Americans in the class while their cases go through claims processes set up in the agreement. The USDA also agreed to changes in its programs that will increase Native American input and improve lending programs.

Crasco, a member of the Fort Belknap tribes, was one of the original or "class representatives" in the lawsuit, now called Marilyn Keepseagle v. (Agriculture Secretary) Tom Vilsack. Keepseagle was also one of the original plaintiffs.

As a representative of the class, the settlement agreement gives $100,000 to Crasco's estate in addition to any other compensation that can be proved.

Crasco, who served with the Army in Vietnam, died Oct. 25. He was born and raised on a ranch and began ranching on his own in 1974.

The family had been expecting the settlement, Irene Crasco said, and when it came, it provided her husband with a sense of joy and relief "to know that our land was saved."

Crasco ranched on about 1,000 acres near Zortman, Irene said. In the lawsuit, Crasco maintained that he was repeatedly discriminated against by USDA lending officials who purportedly said to him "Why don't you Indians just go back to Fort Belknap and borrow money there? That's where you belong," and "You Indians are always getting things for free." 

It said that he was denied loans and was falsely told that money for the loan programs had run out. Other times the loans he received were inadequate or delayed. The Farmers Home Administration required him to have a supervised bank account although Crasco was an experienced rancher with a lending history, the lawsuit said.

Crasco complained of discriminatory treatment to the Malta office in 1989 and 1990. As a result, handling of Native American accounts on the Fort Belknap Reservation was transferred to Havre. Malta is 39 miles from Crasco's home, while Havre is 110 miles away, the complaint said. The service in Havre was no better than in Malta, he maintained.

The complaint asserts that Farmers Home Administration officials tried to humiliate and discourage him. The Fort Belknap Tribal Council also filed written complaints of discrimination with the USDA during the 1980s and 1990s.

"It was pretty frustrating," said Irene. "We ended up having to sell all our cows."

He also ended up with a huge debt, she said. The government took offsets from his Social Security benefits and pension to pay the debt. Irene said she hopes the settlement agreement will free the family from the loan payments. She hasn't decided what to do with any settlement money.

"He planned on investing it in cattle," Irene said. "We always wanted to have cattle and horses on the place."

Although money from the settlement won't start flowing until sometime next year, those who want to file a claim can start the application process now. A website has been set up at www.IndianFarmClass.com. Potential applicants can also call 888-233-5506.

In the meantime, $2 million has been set aside in the settlement agreement to get the word out with a four-month advertising campaign in Indian Country, Greenberg said.

Objections to the settlement agreement have to be postmarked by Feb. 28, and farmers and ranchers who want to opt out of the agreement and pursue their own remedies must also notify the court by that date. Any objections or response must be filed by April 1. A fairness hearing has been scheduled for April 28. After the hearing the judge will decide whether the agreement is fair, Greenberg said. Appeals to his ruling must be filed within 60 days. Once the appeal period ends, members of the class have 180 days to file for compensation.

Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or lthackeray@billingsgazette.com

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