E-mails show ouster of Sherrod was hasty

Shirley Sherrod told officials they didn’t have the full story. Shirley Sherrod told officials they didn’t have the full story. (Gregory Bull/ Associated Press/ File)
By Mary Clare Jalonick
Associated Press / October 9, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Shirley Sherrod, the former Agriculture Department employee, pleaded with officials to hear her out after she was ousted from the USDA during a racial firestorm in July, internal e-mails show.

Sherrod’s pleas reached Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s e-mail account soon after he ordered her dismissed from the department because of supposed racist remarks she made earlier in the year. He initially stuck by his decision despite her warnings that he didn’t have the full story.

Agriculture Department officials asked Sherrod to leave her job as Georgia’s director of rural development July 19 after comments she made in March were misconstrued as racist. She later received numerous apologies from the administration, including from President Obama, and Vilsack asked her to return.

Vilsack has repeatedly said he made the decision to ask her to leave the department alone, with no consultation from the White House. More than 800 pages of e-mails obtained Thursday by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act show his decision was made hastily after learning that an edited clip of her remarks had made its way into the media.

The clip, posted by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, showed Sherrod, who is black, telling a local NAACP group that she was initially reluctant to help a white farmer save his farm more than two decades ago, long before she worked for the USDA. Missing from the clip was the rest of the speech, which was meant as a lesson in racial healing. Sherrod told the crowd she eventually realized her mistake and helped the farmer save his farm.

Vilsack has acknowledged that he made the decision quickly without seeing the full tape. He was traveling in Ohio when the story broke, and an official traveling with him e-mailed other aides that the secretary was “absolutely sick and mad over the S Sherrod issue’’ after seeing news clips about it.

His decision to ask her to resign that day is not detailed in the e-mails. The communications show that there were indications that Sherrod’s comments were being misconstrued by the conservative blogosphere as the USDA moved to oust her.

Dallas Tonsager, rural development undersecretary, wrote Vilsack that afternoon and said he was “deeply disturbed’’ by the edited clip they had seen, but noted that Sherrod had said the comments were “one small part of a longer story she told of her personal transformation beyond race.’’ top stories on Twitter

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