WASHINGTON – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was warned that he may not have the full story as he stuck by his decision to oust Shirley Sherrod, the department worker who was wrongly accused of racism, e-mails released by USDA show.
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 the president himself, 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 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 do show that he had early indications, however, that Sherrod's comments were being misconstrued by the conservative blogosphere as USDA moved to oust her.
Rural development undersecretary Dallas Tonsager wrote Vilsack that afternoon and said he was "deeply disturbed" by the tape but noted that Sherrod had said the comments were "one small part of a longer story she told of her personal transformation beyond race."
Tonsager told Vilsack in the e-mail that Sherrod had told deputy undersecretary Cheryl Cook, the official who asked her to resign, that there was a copy of the longer speech.
As those e-mails circulated the night of July 19, Cook was extracting a resignation from Sherrod. The urgency for her official resignation was clear as the department's White House Liaison, Kevin Washo, e-mailed Cook short missives asking "You have it?" and 30 minutes later, "Let me know as soon as it's in your inbox."
Later that night, Vilsack was forwarded Sherrod's official resignation, which included her defense once more. She said she felt "so disappointed" by the decision that she was asked to resign because of a misrepresentation of her words, and she urged them all to look at the tape. She noted she did everything she could to save the white farmer's farm and said he became a good friend.
"I submit my resignation but in doing so want to put the administration on notice that I will get the whole story out," she wrote in the e-mail to Cook that was forwarded to Vilsack. "My whole life speaks to my commitment to fairness whether white or black."
The next morning, Vilsack wrote an e-mail to top officials at the department saying he wanted to send an e-mail to every employee at USDA "that reaffirms our commitment to a USDA that has no tolerance for discrimination in any form by anyone."
In statements sent out by the department's press office that day, Vilsack continued to stand by his decision. Officials worked to squash the story as Sherrod made television appearances and said she was treated unfairly.
"Hope still that this is a one day story," wrote Chris Mather, USDA director of communications, in an e-mail to other aides. Mather issued talking points to staff with the note "Key here is to say as little as possible. This story will go away unless there is a reason for the press to talk about it more."
In the talking points, officials are urged to answer any questions about the video being taken out of context by saying it is "our duty to instill confidence in the American people that we are fair service providers."
In the early hours of July 20, the White House complimented the department for handling Sherrod's dismissal so quickly. "Just wanted you to know that this dismissal came up at our morning staff meeting today," wrote Christopher Lu, White House liaison to the Cabinet, to Vilsack's chief of staff and deputy chief of staff. "Everyone complemented USDA on how quickly you took this action. It's an unpleasant story, but getting on top of this fast blunts any traction it will get."
But the tables quickly turned. As the day wore on and Sherrod made her case on television, more questions were raised about the context of the speech. After the full video was released by the NAACP that night, Vilsack decided to reverse the decision.
USDA declined to release Vilsack's phone logs. But the e-mails refer to Vilsack's conversations with top White House aides and black leaders, including Jesse Jackson, the evening of July 20 as he decided how to handle the problem.
Some of the e-mails are redacted by USDA in the release, though most are not. As officials e-mailed their concerns over the affair, it is clear they knew their words may eventually be read and kept many of their negotiations offline.
"Not for e-mail," wrote Carole Jett, deputy chief of staff, as she instructed one official to see someone for a briefing on the issue.