The Pigford Con Game: So Many Victims

As I was transcribing the undercover audio we have of Tom Burrell, President of the Black Farmers Agricultural Association, Inc. speaking to an all-black audience in Monroe Louisiana this past January , something suddenly jumped out at me. I knew that Burrell was using a number of persuasive techniques such as peer pressure and stirring up feelings of racial victimization but his reason for doing so had danced around the edge of my consciousness.

Then I realized what Burrell is doing is absolutely classic confidence game behavior. Last year, I read Eric Garcia’s excellent con game novel Matchstick Men and of course I’ve seen classic 1970s con man movies like The Sting and Paper Moon. One major trick that conmen use is to get their victim – the mark — to become their "partner" in some sort of borderline unethical or illegal activity. "Hey, that guy dropped his wallet – what do you say you and I split the money, pal?” This ensures that once the victim has been fleeced, that they’re very unlikely to tell the authorities or anyone else what happened.

One way to listen to this audio is to think about the taxpayers who are being ripped off by people filing fraudulent claims that earn them a $50,000 check. That’s one of the bad things about Pigford and it obviously has affected taxpayers, both black and white.

But there’s another way to hear the audio, as well — everyone who Burrell is trying to convince and cajole into committing fraud is also a victim of Burrell’s game. His goal is to get as many people to give him $100 a year as he can and when I interviewed him, Burrell told me that the BFAA Inc. has nearly 10,000 members. Do the math and you’ll see that he is playing a very profitable game, indeed.

The first video gives a few examples of con game techniques that Tom Burrell uses on the crowd.

The second video is an extended section that shows exactly how Burrell takes people who are giving honest answers to the Pigford claim forms and uses mocking peer pressure to make them feel foolish for telling the truth. Burrell has been practicing his pitch for a decade. He’s entertaining and he’s good at it. His victims are black, mostly poor and seem to be mostly women. The fact that black political leaders and black media outlets have allowed him (and others) to get away with it is beyond shameful.

What is it going to take to get politicians like Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa to listen to what Burrell is doing? Any time fraud is brought up, Pigford defenders like Grassley and (the man Grassley suggest the USDA work with) "Dr." John Boyd trot out the talking point that there are fraud provisions in place. The so-called fraud provisions in Pigford II do absolutely nothing to stop the sort of fraud you just heard. Nothing.

1 Comment

  1. I have been so impressed by your dedication to seeing this story told. It is inspiring my own focus on a new direction. This story will get traction one way or another. Pires looks like a piece fell off of michael bolton and crawled away to be Tim Robbins homunculus…


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