Sherrod contract with USDA a work in progress

USDA’s plans to forge a consulting contract with former Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod have turned rocky. Sherrod, who met briefly with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and his staff two weeks ago about contracting with USDA to help the department address long-standing civil rights issues, has said she was insulted by the department’s initial offer.

Vilsack fired Sherrod last year after media reports misconstrued her statements about white farmers as racially insensitive. She was offered a contract that her spokesman valued at about $35,000 — without expenses for travel.

“The resources that would be available for her don’t work for the things that they are proposing,” said Sherrod’s spokesman Drew Berry. “She is not angry with Vilsack, but she is not happy with the process and what has transpired. She is willing to help, but she is not going to do anything in a superficial way.”

USDA spokesman Justin DeJong said “discussions are ongoing,” and department officials told members of the Congressional Black Caucus — who took up the issue of Sherrod’s contract at their weekly meeting Wednesday — that the issue is a misunderstanding.

Berry said that Sherrod, who was scheduled to speak Thursday at a civil rights conference in North Carolina, had been mailed a copy of the contract this week. She was disappointed and found it insufficient for the scope of the work. DeJong said the “contract that was sent to her was a draft.” The consulting work would not be a full-time position.

On Wednesday, Sherrod told American Urban Radio Networks that “talks had broken down,” but Berry and USDA officials agreed that the negotiations are ongoing.

USDA officials have said the potential contract with Sherrod, who was ousted last summer in a racial imbroglio that embarrassed the department, is a part of its plan to fix long-standing problems with discrimination.

The USDA is also seeking contracts with the National Latino Farmers & Ranchers Trade Association and the Intertribal Agriculture Council. Those groups and Sherrod’s would be tasked with implementing reforms recommended in a two-year, $8 million civil rights assessment released last week by the department.

After reports surfaced last week that Sherrod would return to USDA, Sherrod said she was upset that the information had leaked and considered any announcement that she would return to USDA “premature.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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