Friday, October 8, 2010

Lawmaker criticizes USDA actions in Sherrod firing

WASHINGTON — A Republican lawmaker will ask to meet with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to say he is troubled by newly-released emails that show frenzied department aides trying to contain the political fallout over a video that painted ex-official Shirley Sherrod as racist.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in an interview Friday that he was particularly disturbed by one email in which a USDA deputy secretary said that the job of agency political appointees "is to protect the president.''

"How do we get people to understand that their primary responsibility as political appointees is to make sure the policies of the president get executed — not the politics of the president?'' he asked. Issa is the ranking Republican member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and would become chairman if his party wins control of Congress in next month's election.

The USDA email was among hundreds of pages of correspondence obtained by the Tribune Washington Bureau through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Agriculture officials did not respond to a request for comment on Issa and did not make the deputy secretary, Kathleen Merrigan, available for comment. Sherrod did not return cell phone messages.
Sherrod was ousted on July 19 amid an uproar over a 2 1/2 minute video posted by conservative media entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart.

In the video, Sherrod, an African American, is depicted addressing an NAACP meeting in Georgia earlier in the year. Sherrod talked about her dealings with a white farmer and said she was reluctant at one point to provide him "the full force of what I could do.''

But in the unabridged video, she went on to say the lesson she drew from that 24-year-old encounter was that racism was wrong — that her mission was to help all needy people, black and white.

Vilsack backtracked on her dismissal as the fuller story emerged. Two days after his staff accepted Sherrod's resignation, Vilsack apologized and offered to rehire her, but Sherrod declined. President Obama also apologized to Sherrod and said that Vilsack had "jumped the gun.''

The internal emails show White House and Agriculture officials eager to "squash'' the story, as one administration aide put it, as quickly as possible. They hastened to punish Sherrod even though she had cautioned that the snippet of video tape was misleading and that the full video would demonstrate she had actually repudiated racism.

In her resignation letter, sent at 6:55 p.m. on July 19 to department Undersecretary Cheryl Cook, Sherrod wrote: "Please look at the tape and see that I use the story from 1986 to show people that the issue Is not about race but about those who have, versus those who do not.''
The day after she lost her job, Sherrod appeared on TV news shows and forcefully defended herself. Agriculture officials monitored those appearances, passing around a transcript of Sherrod's appearance on CNN.
According to the Agriculture Department timeline, around 2 p.m. that day, July 20, Merrigan was told by her staff that Sherrod was "on CNN non-stop'' and that a White House official, Christopher Lu, was "inquiring whether we would be changing course.''

The timeline goes on to report Merrigan's assertion that political appointees must "protect the president.''
Issa said he was disturbed by that and would ask for an "after-action'' report in light of the new emails.
The first duty of department officials is to the public, not to the political interests of the president, he argued.
"As soon as they start saying, 'Our job is to protect the president,' you say, 'No, it's to protect food safety and a whole lot of other things,''' Issa said.

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