Sherrod turns down offer to make fresh start at USDA

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; A3

Shirley Sherrod politely declined to return to the federal government weeks after she was forced to resign amid a race-laden political controversy.

Looking weary after a 90-minute meeting with government officials Tuesday morning, Sherrod said that she thought the U.S. Department of Agriculture's leadership would have supported her in the new job but that she questioned whether that was enough for her to be effective in the sprawling agency.

"The secretary did push really hard for me to stay and work from inside, but I look at what happened to me," she said at a news conference with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "I know he's apologized, and I accept it. A new process is in place, but I don't want to test it."

In a phone interview afterward, she said: "There are many, many questions about the position. The secretary is committed to dealing with the issues of discrimination in his agency, but he is one person. You're dealing with discrimination that has been there through the years and a lot of it is systematic, so that's a tall order."

The Obama administration, which stumbled badly in the episode, had hoped to rectify its relationship with Sherrod, but apologetic calls from Vilsack and President Obama and the offer of a promotion to deputy director of outreach and advocacy failed to woo her back.

In rushing to oust Sherrod on the basis of a deceptively edited video of a speech she gave in March, the administration was left looking fearful of racial issues and conservative criticism. Sherrod, who is black, was called a racist and hastily forced to resign based on the misleading video clip, which made it appear that she had discriminated against a white farmer. Her speech, in fact, was about racial conciliation.

Initially, White House officials tried hard to keep the controversy from rising above Vilsack's level. But it wasn't long before Obama felt compelled to weigh in, chiding his team not to be so afraid of the news cycle that they made rash decisions.

Vilsack said Tuesday that he will require better communication between senior officials when an employee's job is on the line.

Vilsack put his arm around Sherrod in the news conference, saying: "I did my best, I think it's fair to say. There's no one better suited in the country to help us than Shirley."

Sherrod, who has been a civil rights activist and an advocate for farmers, would have been the first person to fill the outreach position, which was created in the 2008 farm bill to deal with the department's egregious history of civil rights violations.

There are heavy expectations for the job within the USDA, an agency that picked up the nickname "the last plantation" years ago. Thousands of minority farmers have lawsuits pending against the department for systematic discrimination in the granting of farm loans, and employee lawsuits against the agency have provided civil rights lawyers with years of work.

Sherrod, who was part of a lawsuit filed by black farmers against the USDA in 1999, indicated that the firing had left a sour taste.

She said that she is not angry but that it is not clear to her that the outreach job would have the desired effect in a department in which some employees who discriminated against minority farmers have retained their positions.

"If the secretary was the only person to deal with it, it would be one thing, but there is so much more," Sherrod said. "There are so many layers to deal with in the department."

After Sherrod turned down the outreach job, Vilsack offered to give her back her post as Georgia director of regional development.

"I just don't think that at this point I can do that," Sherrod said of a return to government employment.

Her 11-month tenure at the USDA ended abruptly in July after conservative activist Andrew Briebart released a selectively edited video of a speech she had given. Sherrod said she was on the road when she got the call from Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook and that Cook asked her to stop the car and e-mail a resignation letter.

In Sherrod's telling, Cook said the White House wanted her to quit. But on Tuesday, Vilsack again denied that such was the case. The decision was his alone, Vilsack said.

"As I said earlier, this was my responsibility, and I had to take full responsibility for it," Vilsack said at the news conference with Sherrod. "And I continue to take full responsibility for it. I will take it for as long as I live."

Cook has not apologized to Sherrod, and after the news conference, Sherrod said she did not want to hear from her. She only wanted to move on. Cook remains a deputy undersecretary and is not expected to face disciplinary action. One senior official, who asked to remain anonymous, called Cook "a valued member of the team" and said that Cook had acted at Vilsack's direction.

Vilsack shared with Sherrod the results of an internal review of the circumstances around her dismissal in a meeting that included two assistant secretaries. It called for a more deliberative review of allegations of misconduct and encouraged top officials to regularly update their contact information.

Sherrod tried to contact Vilsack in the days before her resignation by sending a message to a USDA account established for him, but the message went unanswered. The USDA review failed to deal with how to handle issues of race.

After taking a break, Sherrod said, she would be interested in working with Vilsack in an advisory role to help end racism and discrimination in the department. She said that she also wants to respond to some requests for speaking engagements and that she hopes to write a book.

She spent the rest of the day in Washington in media interviews and meetings that she would not elaborate on.

"I haven't stopped working. In my work, people come to me all the time for help on various issues," Sherrod said. "I'll never stop doing that right up until the day I die because I have a commitment. For a while, I need a break."

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