[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]
Good afternoon, everyone. Just a few minutes ago, I had the opportunity and the privilege to speak with Shirley Sherrod over the phone. She was on her way to New York City, and I caught her in the airport.
In the conversation, I started off by extending to her my personal and profound apologies for -- for the pain and discomfort that has been caused to her and to her family over the course of the last several days.
I wanted to give her the opportunity to express what I'm sure has been an extraordinary range of emotions that she must have had and still probably does have, but she was extraordinarily gracious. I wanted to make sure that she understood that I regretted the circumstances and that I accepted full responsibility for them.
We talked briefly about the process, and then I asked if she would be interested in figuring out a way forward that would take advantage of the extraordinary life experiences that she's had. She has been a claimant in a case against the United States Department of Agriculture and has experienced some of the prejudice and bias that we still today are dealing with in terms of claims against the Department.
She's had a broad range of experiences at USDA and understands many of the programs in USDA. She has an extraordinary history of helping individuals in trouble, and, of course, she has gone through a very difficult period in the last couple of days.
As a result of that experience, she has a unique set of skills, which I think would lend themselves to assisting and helping USDA as we deal with trying to turn the page on our civil rights chapter, which has been difficult. For the last 18 months, we've spent a - a good deal of time and effort in an effort to try to resolve thousands of claims that have been filed against the USDA.
We're continuing that work, and we had an opportunity to discuss a unique opportunity here at USDA that might be of interest to her. She asked for the opportunity to think about it, which we -- I certainly respected. I again expressed my deep regret and apology to her and to her family, and advised her that I would be meeting with the press to publicly apologize to her and to express publicly my regret.
So, with that --
Q: Secretary Vilsack, you say that you accept full responsibility. You clearly seem to have jumped to conclusions -- this agency did early on. Why did you jump to conclusions? Was there pressure from the White House to make a quick conclusion here?
Vilsack: No. There was no pressure from the White House. This was --
Q: Was there any communication between this agency --
Q: -- anyone in this agency and the White House consulting on this?
Vilsack: This was -- I want to make sure everyone understands -- This was my decision, and it was a decision that I regret having made in haste. You ask why. For the last 18 months, we have really focused on trying to address the longstanding history of civil rights claims against the Department. They're outstanding claims brought by black farmers, Hispanic farmers, women farmers, Native American farmers. And these are not just a few incidences or a few isolated claims. These are tens of thousands of claims that have been brought against the Department.
I made it as a goal when I took this office that we would try to reverse that history, we would try to close that chapter, that we would be a Department that would not tolerate, in any way, shape, or form, discrimination. I still hold that belief very firmly, and I know Shirley does as well. I've learned a lot of lessons from this experience in the last couple of days, and one of the lessons I learned is that these types of decisions require time. I didn't take the time. I should have. And, as a result, a good woman has gone through a very difficult period, and I'll have to live with that for a long, long time.
Q: Mr. Secretary, Christina Raffini from the CBS Evening News. When you made the decision to dismiss Ms. Sherrod, had you seen her full remarks in their full context, or had you only seen the clip that was posted on -- on the Web?
Vilsack: I saw a transcript, because I was out of the office. I was in Ohio. I saw a transcript.
Q: Was that of the full speech, or was that the clip from the website?
Vilsack: No, no, it wasn't a full speech. It was just of a portion of it.
Q: Mr. Secretary? Mr. Rodd has this is Rachel Streitfeld from CNN. Mr. Rodd has told CNN that Cheryl Cook called her and asked her to resign and that she said that the White House had -- had made this decision to put the pressure on her. Are we going to be able to hear from Ms. Cook? Is that true? Is [inaudible]
Vilsack: You know, I think that first -- first of all, I...indicated to -- to Shirley my personal regret and my responsibility for the fact that she received multiple phone calls. That's again a -- a problem that I could have corrected if I had done this job properly. Having said that, there was no pressure from the White House here. This was my decision. I obviously was not party to those conversations. It -- It may very well be that during the course of the conversation, Ms. Cook indicated that a White House liaison had been contacted, but I don't know that she necessarily indicated that there was any pressure because that was not the case. This was something I decided, and I - I have to accept full responsibility for this.
Q: So does what does that mean -- a White House liaison?
Vilsack: We have a -- a number of people in the White House that we communicate with from time to time when there are issues, just to keep them informed, and I -- this was my decision. I mean, you know, I appreciate the concerns that folks are expressing, but this was my decision, and I made it in haste.
Q: Mr. Secretary --
Vilsack: And I learned from that.
Q: Evan McMorris Santoro, Talking Points Memo.
Vilsack: Yes, sir.
Q: What do you say to other employees of the Agriculture Department who are worried that something could come up about them on the Internet and they might end up being facing the same kind of problems that Sherrod -- Ms. Sherrod faced?
Vilsack: Well, this is a -- you know, this is a teachable moment for me and I hope a teachable moment for -- for all of us. I -- I think it is important to understand that -- that we -- each of us represents this Department. Each of us represents the Administration and the President, and that we've got to be very careful about our actions and our words. And we have to make sure that we -- that we think before we act. I did not think before I acted, and for that reason, this poor woman has gone through a very difficult time.
Q: ...any vetting process to put in place before you make a decision like this or ensure a better plan of how you might examine information before you make a decision.
Vilsack: Sure. We went through a process today of reviewing precisely as best we could what took place, and there will be changes. One thing is there -- there needs to be a more deliberative process, obviously, and I need to do a better job of reaching out to get input before a decision of this magnitude's made. That is a very serious lesson I learned.
I -- I was very sensitive and remain sensitive to the civil rights issues involving this Department. Again, when you're dealing with tens of thousands of claims, tens of thousands of claims, it...is something that needs to be resolved that hasn't been resolved and must be resolved. And so we've done two things. We've -- We've made a concerted effort to try to resolve these cases, and we've also begun a process of looking at our entire operation from an outside consultant to take a look and see whether or not there are any other things that we're doing or shouldn't be doing that would potentially lead to claims in the future -- because we want to put a stop to this.
This is a great agency, a lot of hard working people who care deeply. Shirley is one of them. And they're proud of this agency, and this is part of our history we need to close the chapter on. And that was foremost in my mind when I made a very hasty decision which I deeply regret.
Q: Mr. Secretary, Ed O'Keefe for The Washington Post.
Vilsack: Ed, go ahead. You've got the microphone.
Q: Well, yeah. And that was my question. Can you elaborate a little more? And had you met Ms. Sherrod previous to today's conversation? And if she's so qualified, so uniquely qualified, why was she not given a more senior position previously when you were, you know, hiring new officials with the new Administration?
Vilsack: Ed, first of all, I -- I may very well have visited with her or met her in the context of a larger group meeting of Rural Development directors. I -- I --
Q: You don't recall a specific, meeting her previously?
Vilsack: No. No, no. And I don't know for certain whether or not the Rural Development job was one that she specifically sought. I know that she was recommended for that job. But, given her life experiences, as we begin the process of more aggressively doing advocacy and outreach, this is a person who because of these experiences, having been discriminated against and being a claimant, having gone through that process, having gone through the process that she described in great detail in her -- in her speech, having gone through the last couple of days, she's uniquely positioned to be able to identify with a number of different people who might intersect with this agency in an effort to try to make sure that we don't continue to make the same mistakes we made in the past.
Q: Well, would she be a senior advisor or an under secretary?
Vilsack: I...don't really want to go into detail. I'm happy to do this after she's had an opportunity to think about this. I want to honor my commitment to her in our -- in our conversation today to give her a chance to think about this. I just simply want everyone to know that I...value that experience, and I think there is a way in which, despite the difficulties that I have put her through, there is an opportunity here for us, for me personally to learn obviously, but for the Department to be strengthened. And, at the end of the day, I think that's what the people of this country would want. They want to do right by this woman, but they also want to make sure that this doesn't happen again, which is the learning process, and if there is a way of strengthening the Department, then that's my responsibility to explore it, and I'm -- I'm hopeful that -- that she sees it that way.
Q: Secretary Vilsack, Kay Bolduan with CNN, one more time. Have you spoken to President Obama about this?
Vilsack: No. Alan?
Q: Secretary Vilsack, on the decision that you will be discussing about with her -- Alan Bjerga from Bloomberg News -- is this a position that had been looked at previous to this incident, or would this be a new position created in part as a result of the incident?
Vilsack: ...It's a position that needs to be filled.
Q: Mr. Secretary --
Vilsack: Wait a minute. Phil, did you want to ask a question?
Q: Just -- Just to be clear, when you -- you saw the transcript I assume the staff provided you with a transcript of the initial video clip. Were you aware that it was a partial transcript? Did they make you aware of it? Did you ask to see more of it?
Vilsack: I...had not been aware of it, and I talked with Shirley about the fact that she had emailed the office the -- the Thursday prior to this -- to this video becoming an issue. I did not receive the email because it was not addressed properly to me. In other words, the -- the email address, there was a...problem with the email address, so it never came to my -- my attention.
Q: So she resent it the Thursday before?
Vilsack: She -- She had...received some indication of this clip being available, and she -- she, in an effort to try to respond, sent an email to me which I did not get. It was not addressed properly. It was also sent to the Deputy Secretary's attention. We did not discover it until after the fact, after this all came up, and that's one of the -- that's one of the issues that we're going to address in terms of this review.
Q: Secretary, you're taking very deeply, personal responsibility --
Q: -- for this today.
Q: Does that absolve -- I mean, Barack Obama, President Obama is your boss. Are you absolving the White House of any responsibility here in this situation?
Vilsack: You know, it's not -- it's not my place to absolve anybody from -- from anything, other than to accept responsibility for what I did. And I am accepting that responsibility with deep regret. This is a good woman. She's been put through hell, and I could have done and should have done a better job. I want to learn from that experience. I want the agency and Department to learn from that experience, and I want us to be stronger for it. I want to renew the commitment of this Department to a new era in civil rights. I want to close the chapter on a -- on a very difficult period in civil rights. So I accept responsibility, and I...don't think -- The buck stops with me, as it should.
Q: Secretary, you decided to fire Ms. Sherrod, and then you notified a liaison at the White House or someone did, and can you describe what their reaction then was to that?
Vilsack: I -- I requested her resignation about the same time the sort of things crossed -- crossed in -- in time. I'm not certain in -- in what period of time the White House was contacted, but, as these calls were being made, the White House, through the Liaison's Office, was aware. But the decision to do what was done was done by me. It was my decision, and it was communicated, and one of the lessons learned here is that this type of decision, first and foremost, should have been communicated by me. It should have been done in a much more personal way. It should have been done with far more thought, and it should have been done in far less haste. And all of those are my responsibility, and I accept that responsibility. And I asked for Shirley's forgiveness, and she was gracious enough to extend it to me, and for that, I am thankful.
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Text, Audio, Image (Screenshot) Source: The United States Department of Agriculture
Copyright Status: Text, Audio, Image = Public domain.