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July 21st, 2010
07:00 AM ET

Agriculture secretary to review resignation of USDA official

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testifies on Capitol Hill July 22, 2009. (Getty Images)

(CNN) – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said early Wednesday that he will review the case of a former Agriculture Department official who resigned after a video clip surfaced of her discussing a white farmer.

"I am, of course, willing and will conduct a thorough review and consider additional facts to ensure to the American people we are providing services in a fair and equitable manner," Vilsack said in a statement.

Shirley Sherrod – an African-American – resigned Monday under pressure after the video clip first appeared on a conservative website and later on Fox News. In the video, she seemed to tell an audience she did not do her utmost to help a white farmer avoid foreclosure. However, Sherrod later said the clip only shows part of her comments, and that she tells the story of her experience - from nearly a quarter century ago when she was not a federal employee - to illustrate the importance of moving beyond race. Watch Video

The video initially brought condemnation from the NAACP, which later retracted its statement after the context of the clip became clear. Also, the farmer and his wife Sherrod was discussing, Roger and Eloise Spooner, came forward Tuesday, saying they credited Sherrod with helping them save their farm and that she did not discriminate against them.

"They finally realized it," Sherrod said Wednesday in a statement after hearing the USDA would review her case. "This is what I've been asking for the entire time. Because I know what 'fair and equitable manner' means because of my history ... That's what my life has been - ensuring there's fairness. And I wouldn't have changed my actions."

The NAACP said in a statement Tuesday that it was "snookered by Fox News" and conservative website publisher Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart originally posted the video, which was quickly picked up by Fox News.

"Having reviewed the full tape by Shirley Sherrod, who is the woman who was fired by the Department of Agriculture, and most importantly heard the testimony of the white farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe that the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans," the statement from NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said.

Jealous later posted on his Twitter account that he "Spoke to Ms. Sherrod earlier today and personally apologized. Plan to meet with her face-to-face the next time I'm in Georgia."

The organization had also urged Vilsack to reconsider Sherrod's resignation from her post as the department's director of rural development for Georgia.

In the video, Sherrod can be heard telling an audience at a March 27, 2010, appearance before a local chapter of the NAACP that she had not given a white farmer "the full force of what I could do" to help him save the family farm.

Conservative media outlets tied the video to the NAACP's recent resolution calling on the Tea Party movement to repudiate racist elements within it that have displayed such items as images of President Barack Obama with a bone through his nose and the White House with a lawn full of watermelons. The controversy has led one Tea Party umbrella group to oust another because of a blog posting by the second group's leader.

Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams posted on his blog a faux letter from Jealous to President Abraham Lincoln in which Williams ridicules the organization's use of "colored" in its historic name and uses multiple stereotypes to bolster his point. The National Tea Party Foundation expelled Williams' organization from its coalition as a result.

Breitbart told CNN's "John King USA" on Tuesday that releasing the video was "not about Shirley Sherrod."

"This was about the NAACP attacking the Tea Party, and this is showing racism at an NAACP event," he said. "I did not ask for Shirley Sherrod to be fired."

Sherrod defended herself in a number of interviews Tuesday, saying her controversial comments were taken out of context. She insisted she "went all out" to help Spooner keep his farm and said she resigned only under pressure from the Obama administration, telling CNN she received four phone calls Monday telling her the White House wanted her to step down.

"They asked me to resign, and in fact they harassed me as I was driving back to the state office from West Point, Georgia, yesterday," she said. The last call "asked me to pull to the side of the road and do it [resign]," she said.

Vilsack told CNN on Tuesday that he "didn't speak to anyone at the White House. ... I made this decision, it's my decision. Nobody from the White House contacted me about this at all."

A White House official also told CNN that "the White House did not pressure her or the USDA over the resignation. It was the secretary's decision, as he has said."

Obama was briefed on the situation after Vilsack decided to seek Sherrod's resignation, according to a White House official, who said the president fully supports the decision.

Sherrod said Tuesday that the 1986 incident with Spooner occurred before she started work for the USDA and was working at the nonprofit Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund. She said the experience helped her learn to move beyond race and she tells the story to audiences to make that point.

"I don't know what brought up the racist mess," Roger Spooner told CNN's "Rick's List" on Tuesday. "They just want to stir up some trouble, it sounds to me in my opinion."

Spooner says Sherrod accompanied him and his wife to a lawyer in Americus, Georgia, who was able to help them file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which ultimately saved their farm.

"If it hadn't been for her, we would've never known who to see or what to do," he said. "She led us right to our success."

Spooner's wife, Eloise, remembered Sherrod as "nice-mannered, thoughtful, friendly; a good person."

She said that when she saw the story of the tape and Sherrod's resignation on television, "I said, 'That ain't right. They have not treated her right.' "

The poor-quality video shows Sherrod telling her audience that the farmer she was working with "took a long time ... trying to show me he was superior to me." As a result, she said, she "didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough."

To prove she had done her job, she said, she took him to a white lawyer. "I figured that if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him," she said.

But that lawyer failed to help, she said Tuesday. "I did not discriminate against [the farmer]. And, in fact, I went all out to frantically look for a lawyer at the last minute because the first lawyer we went to was not doing anything to really help him. In fact, that (first) lawyer suggested they should just let the farm go."

Sherrod said she first heard of the possible controversy when someone e-mailed her Thursday to taunt her about her comments. She immediately forwarded the e-mail to the USDA so the agency would be aware. She was told that someone would look into it.

She said it wasn't until Monday that she heard back, and by then, she was being asked for her resignation.

Sherrod said she got four calls Monday from Cheryl Cook, the USDA rural development undersecretary. In the first, she said, she was told she was being put on administrative leave. In the second, she said, she was told she needed to resign.

Asked if she felt she had an opportunity to explain, Sherrod said, "No, I didn't. The administration, they were not interested in hearing the truth. No one wanted to hear the truth."

Vilsack said Tuesday that the controversy, regardless of the context of her comments, "compromises the director's ability to do her job."

"This isn't a situation where we are necessarily judgmental about the content of the statement, that's not the issue here. I don't believe this woman is a racist at all," he said. "She's a political appointee, and her job is basically to focus on job growth in Georgia, and I have deep concern about her ability to do her job without her judgments being second-guessed."

Ralph Paige, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, where Sherrod worked for before being appointed to the USDA job in 2009, told CNN on Tuesday that she garnered only praise and there were never any claims of discrimination against her.

"I can't praise Shirley enough," he said. "She holds no malice in her heart."

Vilsack said in a statement Monday he had accepted Sherrod's resignation, noting a "zero tolerance" policy for discrimination at the USDA. "I strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person," he said.

The first statement that the NAACP issued late Monday backed Vilsack's decision.

"Racism is about the abuse of power. Sherrod had it in her position at USDA. According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race," Jealous said. "We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers."

Sherrod said the NAACP did not contact her before issuing the first statement. She said she got a phone call from an NAACP representative in Washington on Tuesday afternoon telling her another statement would be issued once the full tape was reviewed.

"I told him I was highly disappointed that they would make a statement without even looking into it," she said.

In the statement issued Tuesday evening, the NAACP reversed its condemnation after viewing the full video.

"(Sherrod) was sharing this account as part of a story of transformation and redemption," the statement said. "In the full video, Ms. Sherrod says she realized that the dislocation of farmers is about 'haves and have nots.' 'It's not just about black people, it's about poor people,' says Sherrod in the speech. 'We have to get to the point where race exists but it doesn't matter.' "

Earlier Tuesday, Sherrod called the NAACP "the reason why this happened. They got into a fight with the Tea Party, and all of this came out as a result of that."

She called the ensuing controversy "unbelievable."

"I think any moment I'm going to wake up and none of this is happening, but it is," she said.

"When you spend your life helping others and see people try to turn that around to try to make it look like you're a racist when that's not been what your life has been about - that doesn't feel good."

Sherrod and her family were part of a lawsuit filed in 1997 against the Agriculture Department that charged it discriminated against black farmers by denying them timely loans or debt restructuring. Complaints of discrimination began piling up after the Reagan administration shut down the department's civil rights division in 1983, and the lawsuit covered the years between 1983 and 1997.

A district court judge eventually combined two such lawsuits into a class action, and the two sides reached a settlement in 1999. The agreement gave each plaintiff $50,000 plus loan forgiveness and tax offsets, provided the plaintiff met certain criteria (Track A), or the possibility of a larger amount by showing evidence of greater damages (Track B).

More than 22,000 farmers applied - far more than the 2,000 expected - and more than 13,000 were approved for the $50,000 award. Fewer than 200 farmers opted for the Track B process.

Sherrod and her husband were part of the lawsuit because of the land trust they started in the 1960s along with several other black families. Ultimately, their land trust - New Communities - was awarded $13 million, most for loss of land and loss of income and including $300,000 for the Sherrods, according to the Rural Development Leadership Network.

Vilsack, who is now the defendant in the lawsuit - Pigford vs. Vilsack - as final details are worked out, referred to the discrimination lawsuit and other similar suits in a statement announcing that he had accepted Sherrod's resignation.

"There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA, and I strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person," Vilsack said. "We have been working hard through the past 18 months to reverse the checkered civil rights history at the department and take the issue of fairness and equality very seriously."

Filed under: Controversy • Politics
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Davis

    I'm with you Bruce. CNN has stooped to sensational journalism and lost its credibility with a lot of people.

    July 21, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
  2. No Context

    I agree!! Something needs to be done. A full investigation into why this Andrew guy started this as well as Faux News? What were their true intentions? The guy who fired her should have HIS record looked investigated. Apparently, He has been deemed incompetent by HIS recent actions.

    July 21, 2010 at 10:51 am |
  3. Bruce

    Your reporting on this is poor. Instead of focussing on the intended deception of millions of people by the editor of the video and Fox, you focus on the administration changing their minds. You are not reporting the full story. Please do your jobs and stop simply trying to smear the administration. You are losing credibility with me. I've been seeing more and more of this from your network recently. I don't know why, but I don't like it.

    July 21, 2010 at 9:00 am |
  4. Glen

    I'm saddened that the Obama Administration has so easily allowed itself to be used as a pawn by the conservative media. I'm incredulous as to why they hadn't, at most, suspended her pending an investigation rather than ignore her explanation and harrass her into resigning. Shameful.

    More upsetting, however, was the NAACP's initial reaction and its later apology. They were not "snookered"; they didn't do any diligence before condemning a woman with whom they'd previously worked–despite the fact that the full tape existed within their own organiztion. Furthermore, to say in that apology that "most importantly" they had spoken to the white farmers, suggests that Sherrod herself (an African American woman with a long career of good work) is not her own best and most important advocate.

    July 21, 2010 at 8:47 am |