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Rush to judgment in Sherrod case

Over the course of five hours, Agriculture Department officials scrambled to oust Shirley Sherrod over a misleading excerpt of a 2009 speech circulated on the Internet.

October 08, 2010

Over the course of five hours on July 19, top Agriculture Department officials scrambled to oust Shirley Sherrod after the online circulation of a misleading excerpt of her 2009 speech to NAACP members. In doing so, the officials, including Secretary Tom Vilsack, overlooked indications that they did not have all the facts and acted without having seen her full speech.

1:56 p.m., from Wayne Maloney, a USDA press aide, to Chris Mather, USDA public affairs director, and others, about the misleading fragment of video of Sherrod's 2009 speech: "I was just informed of a video of the Georgia State Director that was posted on the Internet earlier this afternoon. It speaks for itself and you need to watch it right away." 

2:31 p.m., from Mather to Karen Ross, chief of staff to Vilsack, and others, with a link to the video fragment: "THIS IS HORRIBLE." 

3:06 p.m., from Carole Jett, deputy chief of staff, to Cheryl Cook, a deputy undersecretary, and others: "Sherliy Sherrod is on tape and you need to see/hear immediately. … We need to take immediate action." 

3:32 p.m., from USDA congressional liaison Krysta Harden, to Jett, Mather and others. It was forwarded to Cook: "The S [Secretary Vilsack] is absolutely sick and mad over the Sherrod issue. He wants her immediately on adm leave." 

3:35 p.m., from Cook to Jett and others: "Done." 

4:04 p.m., from USDA Undersecretary Dallas Tonsager to Vilsack: "We have just seen the video of George State Director Shirley Sherrod and are deeply disturbed. Cheryl [Cook] has put her on administrative leave pending a full investigation." 

4:16 p.m., from Harden to Mather, Ross and others: "This is awful. If he can right out fire her he will or ask for her resignation." 

4:42 p.m., Cook calls Sherrod in Georgia to ask if she would resign. 

4:51 p.m., Tonsager to USDA official whose name is redacted: "Shirley Sherrod has resigned." 

6:35 p.m., Cook calls Sherrod to ask her to "submit a resignation by email."

6:55 p.m., Sherrod, via BlackBerry, plaintively submits her resignation: "I feel so disappointed that the secretary and the president let a misrepresentation of my words on the part of th Tea Party be the reason to ask me to resign. 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. …I submit my resignation but in doing so want to put the administration on notice that I will get the whole story out. My whole life speaks for my commitment to fairness whether white or black." 

July 20, 8:55 a.m., from White House Cabinet liaison Christopher Lu to Ross, Jett and others: "Just wanted you to know that this dismissal came up at our morning senior staff meeting today. Everyone complimented USDA on how quickly you took this action. It's an unpleasant story, but getting on top of this fast blunts any traction it will get. Thanks for the great efforts."

11:03 a.m., Mather tells Jett, Ross, Harden and others to lay out official USDA talking points on the matter, in the event of questions from the media or elsewhere. One sample question: "Did she explain the real story to you?" "She said it was taken out of context but we have not seen the entire video. We have a duty to instill confidence in the American people that we are fair service providers. Comments made by Mrs. Sherrod, even if taken out of context, undermine that trust."

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