Judicial Watch Obtains Documents Revealing White House Role in the Controversial Firing of USDA Employee Shirley Sherrod
MARCH 07, 2012
White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs Denied Obama White House was Involved in Firing
Documents Show Obama White House Approved Statement by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Accepting Sherrod’s Forced Resignation
(Washington, DC) – Judicial Watch, the public interest group that investigates and prosecutes government corruption, announced today that it has obtained documents suggesting the Obama White House approved of the decision to fire U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod on July 19, 2010, based on what were thought to be racist statements made by Sherrod during a speech at a NAACP meeting on March 27, 2010. Despite the fact that former White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs claimed that the Obama White House played no role in the decision, the documents also indicate that White House officials helped craft and approved the language used by the Secretary of Agriculture in announcing the acceptance of Sherrod’s forced resignation.
The 282 pages recently obtained by Judicial Watch pursuant to an August 2, 2010, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request are in addition to the 900 documents previously disclosed in October 2010. The new documents consist of internal emails between U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employees and White House staff members in devising a public response to a rapidly growing controversy over the firing of Sherrod, who served as the USDA’s Georgia State Director of Rural Development. After the Sherrod dismissal backfired, former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs claimed “this was… a decision that was made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” and denied that the Obama White House was involved in her being asked to resign.
However, the emails obtained by Judicial Watch reveal that the Obama administration had early knowledge and was involved in subsequent decisions. For example:
- 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.”
Within the documents released to Judicial Watch is an email chain indicating that Gavin oversaw the writing and obtained counsel approval of the announcement by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on July 19, 2010, in which Vilsack stated, “Today, I accepted Ms. Sherrod’s resignation. There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA, and I strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person.” In approving the copy, Gavin indicated in a July 19, 2010, email “We are good with this version on this end.”
According to Shirley Sherrod, who is an African-American, the Obama administration forced her to resign from her job after an excerpt of a speech she gave at the NAACP meeting appeared in a video posted online. In the controversial video, first disclosed by the late Andrew Breitbart, Sherrod described her reluctance to help a white farmer save his land. Further into the talk, Sherrod described how she later went on to work with the farmer and his wife over a two-year period to help prevent foreclosure on his farm.
The White House and the USDA reacted immediately to the video to quell what they assumed would be a furor over Sherrod’s controversial remarks. As reported by CNN, according to Sherrod, Deputy Undersecretary for Rural Development for the USDA Cheryl Cook called her three times, stressing that the White House wanted her to resign.
However, Robert Gibbs issued a denial that the White House played a role in the decision. According to Politico:
“This was, as you heard Secretary Vilsack say yesterday, a decision that was made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who refused even to say which senior Obama aides have been involved in the process.
“The president was briefed yesterday and has been briefed, obviously, today as well,” added Gibbs, who said the White House was informed but not “consulted” about the firing.
“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. 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,” stated Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton.