WASHINGTON (AP) _ The secretary of agriculture 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 the Agriculture Department show.
Department officials asked Sherrod to leave her job as Georgia’s director of rural development in the state of Georgia on July 19 after comments she made in March were misconstrued as racist. She later received numerous apologies from the administration, including from President Barack Obama himself, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked her to return.
The firing of Sherrod, who is black, caused an uproar in the country and raised questions whether the administration of Obama, the first black president, acted too quickly, without all the facts, to shield the president from charges that his administration favored minorities.
Vilsack has said repeatedly that he alone made the decision to ask Sherrod to leave the department, 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 telling a local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People audience 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 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.
USDA director of communications Chris Mather said Friday that the e-mail from Tonsager was forwarded to Vilsack’s account after the secretary was told she resigned, “and he does not remember seeing the e-mail after it was sent.”
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.”