Report: White House played a role in the firing of Shirley Sherrod

Michael Bastasch | Energy Editor

Documents obtained by Judicial Watch, a public interest group that investigates and prosecutes government corruption, show that the Obama White House played a role in the controversial firing of former U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod. The administration had previously denied any involvement in her resignation.

Shirley Sherrod resigned in July 2010 over allegedly racist comments she made in a NAACP speech four months earlier. Documents obtained by Judicial Watch indicate that White House officials helped draft, and approved, language used by the Secretary of Agriculture in announcing the acceptance of Sherrod’s forced resignation, despite former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs denying any White house involvement.

The documents consist of internal emails between the USDA employees and White House staffers who crafted a public response to the growing controversy over Sherrod’s dismissal. After it backfired, Gibbs denied White House involvement and placed blame on the USDA.

“This was, as you heard Secretary Vilsack say yesterday, a decision that was made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Gibbs said. “The president was briefed yesterday and has been briefed, obviously, today as well.”

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack echoed Gibbs, saying, “There was no pressure from the White House. This was my decision.” Vilsack agreed to reverse his decision and rehire Sherrod after he was pressured by the White House.

But the emails obtained by Judicial Watch show that the White house was involved early on in the controversy and was also involved in subsequent decisions.

According to Judicial Watch:

  • When informed on July 19, 2010, about Sherrod’s statements at the NAACP meeting, then-White House spokesperson Reid Cherlin emailed then-USDA Director of Communications Chris Mather “[H]as she been fired?”
  • In an effort to emphasize what Vilsack needed to say to the press former Special Assistant to the President and White House Cabinet Communications Director Tom Gavin emailed to Mather on July 19, 2010, “Just [t]o be clear, this is the Secretary’s quote, right?”  Mather responded, “I think it should be, don’t you,” to which Gavin replied, “absolutely.”
  • As events unfolded on July 19, 2010, Mather emailed Gavin at the White House, “Did you connect with the NAACP?”  Gavin responded, “OPE [Office of Public Engagement] did. We’ll be fine.”

According to Sherrod, the White House wanted her to resign following the controversial release of her excerpted speech by the late Andrew Breitbart. According to CNN, the White House and USDA both moved to quickly to force her resignation, with then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel closely watching the event as it unfolded.

CNN also obtained evidence that showed Secretary Vilsack pressured his staff to oust Sherrod, even though some on his staff knew that additional footage might prove Sherrod wasn’t a racist.

Cheryl Cook, a top Vilsack aide, ultimately fired Sherrod.

Sherrod told CNN that Cook told her she had to resign because the White House wanted her out, even though the administration later denied this.

“The Sherrod firing was clearly an embarrassment for the Obama administration, but that is no excuse for the Obama White House to cover up its role in the decision to fire Sherrod,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton.

“The Obama White House would rather we just accept their explanations, but facts can be pesky things.  The documents clearly show that White House officials played a key role in the decision to force Sherrod’s resignation and then misled the American people about that role.”

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