USDA racial flap reconstructed

Associated Press | 8/11/2010, 7:43 a.m.

WASHINGTON - As a racial firestorm erupted last month, the White House buzzed with questions and concerns about the forced ouster of a black Agriculture Department employee. But no one stepped in to stop Secretary Tom Vilsack from pressuring Shirley Sherrod to resign, a decision administration officials from President Barack Obama on down now say was a mistake.

Interviews with White House and Agriculture Department officials reveal a greater level of White House involvement in the incident than officials initially let on, with staff making calls to Capitol Hill and civil rights groups, and senior administration officials speaking to Vilsack. Most notably, White House staff expressed concerns early on that Sherrod’s remarks about race in an edited video clip may have been taken out of context.

Despite the concerns, a White House official said no one in the West Wing asked the Agriculture Department to hold off in seeking Sherrod’s resignation until a full tape or transcript of her remarks could be found. The official said the White House didn’t want to get involved in what it considered to be a USDA personnel matter.

The official insisted on speaking anonymously in order to reconstruct what happened in the 36-hour period between Sherrod’s resignation and the Agriculture Department’s decision to reconsider and offer her a new job.

A week before the controversy reached Washington, Sherrod started receiving e-mails from people who saw a clip of her remarks posted on two websites, HotAir.com and USActionNews.com. The heavily edited video showed Sherrod speaking about an incident that took place more than two decades ago in which, she said, she didn’t help a white farmer as much as she could have.

Sherrod tried to alert Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, but the e-mail addresses she used were either outdated or rarely checked, a USDA official said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the timeline of events. Another e-mail went to a mid-level staffer who didn’t alert senior officials until the controversy peaked the following week.

By Monday, July 19, the two-minute, 38-second video had been posted again by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, catching the attention of senior USDA officials who alerted Vilsack while he was traveling in Ohio. After watching a news story about the tape, Vilsack decided that Sherrod should be placed on administrative leave.

Because Sherrod was a political appointee, the department informed the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, which handles executive nominations and appointments.

The White House official said staffers in the personnel office quickly raised concerns about whether the video accurately reflected the totality of Sherrod’s remarks and began trying to locate a full transcript. The official said those concerns were shared with the USDA, but no attempt was made to intervene. Senior White House officials, including press secretary Robert Gibbs, Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer and Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, also were briefed on the incident.

The situation escalated quickly throughout Monday evening. USDA Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook, the official who told Sherrod she was on administrative leave, made two more calls: one asking Sherrod if she was willing to resign and another asking if she could submit her resignation in writing by the end of the day. Sherrod agreed to both, though she wrote in her e-mailed resignation that her words were taken out of context and vowed to clear her name.