July 22, 2010 in Nation/World

White House backtracks on Sherrod firing

Officials apologize to dismissed USDA employee
Peter Nicholas Tribune Washington bureau
Associated Press photo

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he acted in haste in firing Shirley Sherrod, a U.S. Agriculture Department official.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration issued an extraordinary public apology Wednesday and offered to reinstate a federal official who was fired after she appeared to make racial comments on a misleading snippet of video.

When it became clear that her comments had been taken out of context, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to Shirley Sherrod by phone to apologize and to ask if she would return to the department.

The events came as an embarrassment to Obama administration officials, who have sought to depict themselves as immune to the blogosphere and demands of the news cycle.

In this case, though, the administration fired the woman based on Vilsack’s reading of a transcript of a video on a conservative website that left the inaccurate impression that Sherrod, a black Department of Agriculture official, had deliberately not helped a white man save his family farm in 1986 when she worked for a Georgia nonprofit.

As the video went viral, putting pressure on the White House to respond, Vilsack made the quick decision Monday to dismiss Sherrod.

“This is a good woman. She’s been put through hell,” Vilsack said Wednesday. “I could have done and should have done a better job.”

Vilsack said the decision to fire Sherrod had been his and his alone.

He did not describe the new position, but hinted that it might involve a promotion to a position dealing with civil rights claims. Sherrod said she would consider it, a contrite Vilsack said in a late afternoon news conference.

The White House role in the firing remains unclear. Vilsack denied he had received any “pressure” but said he discussed his actions with a White House liaison.

In interviews, Sherrod has said that a department undersecretary, Cheryl Cook, phoned her Monday and told her the White House wanted her to quit. Sherrod said that Cook also told her the story would be mentioned on the cable show hosted by Fox News conservative commentator Glenn Beck, a harsh White House critic.

The White House denied that it sought Sherrod’s resignation.

Vilsack’s news conference followed a briefing by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who apologized on behalf of the administration. Underscoring the influence of instantaneous media, Sherrod was shown in a CNN studio viewing Gibbs’ briefing, and smiled as the apology was being expressed in real time.

“I think without a doubt Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology,” Gibbs said. “I would do so certainly on behalf of this administration.”

He added that “everybody involved made determinations without knowing all the facts and all the events.”

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