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Lawmaker criticizes USDA actions in Sherrod firing

A Republican lawmaker will ask to meet with Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack to express concern over e-mails showing frenzied department aides trying to contain the political fallout over a video painting former official Shirley Sherrod as racist.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) said in an interview Friday that he was particularly disturbed by one e-mail in which a USDA deputy secretary said that the job of agency political appointees “is to protect the president.”

“How do we get people to understand that their primary responsibility as political appointees is to make sure the policies of the president get executed — not the politics of the president?” asked Issa, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who would become chairman if his party wins control of Congress in next month’s election.

The Department of Agriculture e-mail was among hundreds of pages of correspondence obtained by the Tribune Washington bureau through a Freedom of Information Act request.

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USDA officials did not respond to a request for comment on Issa’s statements and did not make the deputy secretary, Kathleen Merrigan, available for comment. Sherrod did not return cellphone messages.

Sherrod was ousted July 19 amid an uproar over a 2 1/2-minute video posted by conservative media blogger Andrew Breitbart.

In the video, Sherrod, an African American, is depicted addressing an NAACP meeting in Georgia earlier in the year. Sherrod talked about her dealings with a white farmer and said she was reluctant at one point to provide him “the full force of what I could do.”

But in the unabridged video, she went on to say the lesson she drew from that 24-year-old encounter was that racism was wrong — that her mission was to help all needy people, black and white.

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Vilsack backtracked on her dismissal as the fuller story emerged. Two days after his staff accepted Sherrod’s resignation, the secretary apologized and offered to rehire her, but Sherrod declined. President Obama also apologized to Sherrod and said that Vilsack had “jumped the gun.”

The internal e-mails show White House and USDA officials eager to “squash” the story, as one administration aide put it, as quickly as possible. They hastened to punish Sherrod, even though she had cautioned them that the snippet of videotape was misleading and that the full video would demonstrate she had repudiated racism.

In her resignation letter, sent at 6:55 p.m. on July 19 to department Undersecretary Cheryl Cook, Sherrod wrote: “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.”

The day after she lost her job, Sherrod appeared on television news shows and forcefully defended herself. Agriculture officials monitored those appearances, passing around a transcript of Sherrod’s appearance on CNN.

According to a timeline compiled by Deputy Secretary Merrigan, around 2 p.m. that day, Merrigan was told by her staff that Sherrod was “on CNN nonstop” and that a White House official, Christopher Lu, was “inquiring whether we would be changing course.”

“The deputy expressed concern that Sherrod was attacking the administration on TV and that our jobs as political appointees is to protect the president,” the timeline said.

Issa said he was disturbed by that and would ask for an “after-action” report in light of the new e-mails. The first duty of department officials is to the public, not to the political interests of the president, he said.

“As soon as they start saying, ‘Our job is to protect the president,’ you say, ‘No, it’s to protect food safety and a whole lot of other things,’ ” Issa said.

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com


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