Vilsack Apologizes to Ousted USDA Official Over Firing, Offers Post Back

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he personally apologized to Shirley Sherrod, the black USDA employee forced to resign after a furor over an edited videotape of remarks she made, and offered to rehire her.

Vilsack said he extended “my personal and profound apologies” and that he took full responsibility for turmoil caused when he demanded her resignation without fully investigating the facts of the case.

“This is a good woman; She’s been put through hell,” Vilsack said at a news conference in Washington. “I could have done and should have done a better job.”

President Barack Obama’s chief spokesman, Robert Gibbs, earlier issued an apology on behalf of the administration and said “a disservice” was done to Sherrod. Vilsack said the White House didn’t pressure him to seek Sherrod’s resignation on July 19.

“This was my decision and I made it in haste,” Vilsack said. “I asked for Shirley’s forgiveness, and she was gracious enough to extend it to me.”

The controversy stemmed from a portion of a speech she gave at an NAACP banquet in March in Georgia. In it, she said was telling an anecdote about having an initial meeting with a white farmer who had acted “superior,” prompting her to think she might not use the “full force” of what she could do to help him.

That clip was highlighted recently by the website biggovernment.com and was posted on YouTube.com. The NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, initially condemned her remarks and Vilsack asked for her resignation.

Full Version

The incident she was speaking about occurred in 1986 when she was working for a nonprofit agency, not the USDA. In the full version, she talks about how that experience caused her to realize that the issue was about the “haves and have nots” and not white versus black. She said she worked hard “calling everybody I could think of” to help the man save his farm, a statement corroborated by the farmer.

After viewing the full video and speaking to Sherrod and the white farmers she mentioned in her remarks, NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement yesterday that he believes the organization was “snookered” by those who circulated the edited clip.

Eloise Spooner, the wife of the farmer, said in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Sherrod worked diligently to help the couple keep their land when they faced bankruptcy in 1986 and that they consider her a “friend for life.”

Rehiring

Vilsack said he offered to rehire Sherrod at the USDA in a position that would use her “extraordinary history” to assist the agency as it tries improve its record on race relations.

“She asked for the opportunity to think about it,” he said.

Gibbs said Obama was briefed on the case yesterday. He said he wouldn’t rule out the president making remarks about the controversy in the near future.

“Everybody involved made determinations without knowing all the facts and all the events,” Gibbs said.

In an interview with CNN before Vilsack spoke, Sherrod said she wasn’t sure whether she would accept a job offer.

“It took too long but it makes me feel better that the apology is finally coming,” she said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Catherine Dodge in Washington at cdodge1@bloomberg.net; Alan Bjerga in Washington at abjerga@bloomberg.net

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