Vilsack apologizes as debate grows over USDA's handling of Sherrod case

Vilsack apologizes as debate grows over USDA's handling of Sherrod case

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



Washington, July 21 - The political firestorm over the forced resignation of Shirley Sherrod, USDA's Rural Development Director in Georgia, continues to spread as some of her harshest critics are now apologizing or calling for her reinstatement. Some are also calling for “heads to roll” at USDA over how this situation was handled.

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack held a press conference Wednesday afternoon to take full responsibility for the incident and explain that he had offered a new opportunity at USDA for Sherrod. He declined to describe the position until after she had a chance to consider the offer.

Vilsack deflected questions about whether or not any pressure came down from the White House to fire Sherrod after a conservative blog aired a video segment in which Sherrod appeared to make racist comments in a speech to the NAACP in March about how she had initially treated a white farmer 24 year ago. However, Sherrod said the short video clip excluded the breadth of the story about how she eventually worked with the man over a two-year period to help ward off foreclosure of his farm, and how she eventually became friends with the farmer and his wife. She used the story to explain how racism can be overcome. During interviews Tuesday on CNN, the farmer and his wife later came to her defense.

The former Iowa Governor took full responsibility for the decision.

This was my decision. It was my decision and it was a decision I made in haste,” Vilsack told reporters. “I did not think before I acted.

Vilsack told reporters that Sherrod accepted his apology. He said, "She was extraordinarily gracious."

During an interview on CNN, Sherrod said she was contacted numerous times via cell phone by USDA's Deputy Under Secretary Cheryl Cook on Monday who told her that the White House wanted her to resign before she became a media target for conservative commentator Glenn Beck.

The NAACP, which had initially backed the Agriculture Department in pushing for the resignation and strongly condemned Sherrod's statements in March, reversed course late Tuesday and called for the department to reconsider, calling the incident a “false controversy” generated by conservative media. Neither Vilsack or the NAACP actually called Sherrod prior to issuing their statements.

Sec. Vilsack also explained in Wednesday's press conference that Sherrod had sent an e-mail to him and to the Deputy Secretary at USDA last Thursday prior to the release of the video. Sherrod explained in the e-mail what had actually happened, anticipating that incorrect information was about to be released about her remarks. Vilsack said that unfortunately because of the way the e-mails were addressed, no one at USDA saw the e-mails in time to avoid the problems which followed.

As a result of the miscommunication and what he called his too hasty decision to seek Sherrod's resignation before learning all the facts, Vilsack said on Wednesday that “This is a good woman. She has been put through hell. I could have done and I should have done a better job.”

To watch the complete 43-minute video of Shirley Sherrod's very moving, very worthwhile watching speech to an NAACP dinner meeting last March, go to: www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9NcCa_KjXk&feature=player_embedded

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