Obama Administration Apologizes, Offers to Rehire Ousted USDA Official

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack personally apologized to the black USDA employee he ousted after a furor over an edited videotape of remarks she made in a March speech, saying he “did not handle this situation well.”

Vilsack said yesterday he called Shirley Sherrod to extend “my personal and profound apologies” and that he took full responsibility for turmoil caused when he demanded her resignation without fully investigating the circumstances. He also extended a job offer to Sherrod, 62, who had been the agency’s director of rural development for Georgia.

“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.

The controversy stemmed from a portion of a speech she gave at an NAACP banquet in March in Georgia. In it, she was telling an anecdote about having an initial meeting with a white farmer who had acted “superior to me,” and as a result she initially didn’t “give him the full force of what I could do” to help him.

That clip was highlighted July 19 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 that night.

Seeking Forgiveness

Vilsack said the White House didn’t pressure him to seek Sherrod’s resignation.

“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 incident she was speaking about occurred in 1986 when she was working for a nonprofit agency, not the USDA. In the full version of her speech, 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 farmer she mentioned in her remarks, NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement July 20 that he believes the organization was “snookered” by those who circulated the edited clip.

‘Friend for Life’

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

Posting of the video coincided with the NAACP’s call to leaders of the Tea Party movement to “repudiate those in their ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches.”

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

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

Vilsack vowed to rectify the USDA’s history of discrimination claims when he took office last year, a priority he said contributed to the haste of his decision.

The White House in May added $1.15 billion to a fund meant to settle claims made under the Pigford v. Glickman discrimination lawsuit filed by black farmers against the Department of Agriculture alleging biased treatment in USDA programs.

Discrimination Claim

Sherrod has been a discrimination claimant against USDA, Vilsack said. According to the website of the Rural Development Leadership Network, a group based in New York that organizes the rural poor, Sherrod last year led a group that won a $13 million settlement as part of Pigford. She received $150,000.

John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said the incident is an opportunity for Obama to take a “stronger look” at race relations in the country.

“These things are going to continue to arise if we don’t have a real race dialogue in this country,” Boyd said in an interview. “The Sherrod issue is a moment in our country where everyone can learn from this and not prejudge.”

Boyd said the Obama administration should have used its resources to look at the unedited footage. “Mistakes happen,” he said.

Black farmers have made allegations of unfair treatment by the U.S. government for decades, saying the bias has contributed to the small number of blacks in agriculture. While African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they operate about 1.5 percent of the nation’s farms, according to the USDA.

In the Pigford v. Glickman settlement, the USDA admitted bias against black farmers between 1983 and 1997. The government said it treated African Americans unfairly when deciding how to allocate farm loans and disaster payments and acknowledged that it failed to process earlier discrimination complaints. Dan Glickman was secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton.

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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