Reporting from Washington — Obama administration officials knew they did not have all the facts last summer when they rushed to dismiss Shirley Sherrod from the Agriculture Department after learning of a video that painted her as a racist, newly released e-mails show.
The day after Sherrod's ouster, even as USDA officials acknowledged in internal memos that they had not seen the full video, a White House senior aide e-mailed them to commend the department for moving quickly so the story would not gain "traction."
As it turned out, Sherrod had been falsely accused, and the actions taken by Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack and his senior staff became a major embarrassment for the Obama administration, raising questions about its basic competence and its preoccupation with public perceptions.
Hundreds of pages of e-mails released to the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau under the Freedom of Information Act provide a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at how the Obama administration handled the Sherrod case, an episode that culminated in apologies from both Vilsack and President Obama.
Obama took the extraordinary step of admitting that his administration had treated Sherrod poorly and said he had instructed his team to focus "on doing the right thing instead of what looks to be politically necessary at that very moment."
In mid-July, conservative media entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart posted a 21/2 -minute video of Sherrod, an African American, addressing an NAACP meeting in Georgia earlier this year. Sherrod discussed her dealings with a white farmer in 1986 and how she was reluctant at one point to give him the "full force of what I could do."
That touched off a furor in conservative media outlets, many of which called for her resignation. But the NAACP later released the complete video of Sherrod's appearance, in which she said the encounter with the white farmer taught her that poor people of all races need help, which she resolved to give.
The e-mails, some of which were redacted by the Agriculture Department, do not show whether the White House ordered the dismissal, long a point of speculation. Sherrod has said that when department Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook called and asked her to resign, Cook told her the White House wanted her out, but USDA and White House officials have said the decision was made within the agency.
However, the e-mails suggest the White House was watching with interest. "Just wanted you to know that this dismissal came up at our morning senior staff meeting today," Christopher Lu, who serves as Obama's liaison to the Cabinet, wrote to top Agriculture officials early July 20, the morning after Sherrod was ousted. "Everyone complimented USDA on how quickly you took this action," he wrote, adding that it would stop an "unpleasant story" from getting "traction." "Thanks for the great efforts."
Within the USDA, the messages show, government officials had moved at breakneck pace to try to beat the news cycle, leaving little time to ask questions, seek legal advice or consider Sherrod's side of the story.
The first sign of trouble arrived about 2 p.m. on July 19, in an e-mail from USDA communications staffer Wayne Maloney.
Maloney informed Chris Mather, the department's director of communications, that a video had popped up online and that a conservative website soon would publicize it.
"It speaks for itself and you need to watch it right away," Maloney writes.
Mather's response was blunt. "THIS IS HORRIBLE," she wrote as she sent notice — subject line "Super Urgent" — up the chain of command to Karen Ross, Vilsack's chief of staff, and her deputy, Carole Jett.
It took just an hour and a half to get a directive from Vilsack. "The S [Secretary Vilsack] is absolutely sick and mad over the S Sherrod issue. He wants her immediately on adm leave," wrote Krysta Harden, assistant secretary of congressional relations.
Cook responded simply, "Done."
Five minutes later, Cook reached Sherrod on a cellphone. Sherrod gave her side of the story, according to a timeline assembled by Cook.
Cook and Dallas Tonsager, undersecretary of rural development, said in an e-mail sent to Vilsack a few minutes later that the subject of the speech was blacks and whites working together.
"She said there is a copy of the entire speech, and Cheryl asked her to provide it as quickly as possible," the e-mails said.
But Vilsack did not wait. An hour later, Cook called Sherrod, who was driving in Georgia, to ask her to resign. Another hour later, Cook called Sherrod again to ask her to resign by the end of the day.
"I called her a fourth time at 6:35 to ask whether she'd be willing to pull over to the side of the road and submit a resignation by email," Cook writes in the account.
Sherrod agreed, and her job working with poor farmers in rural Georgia was finished.