- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department employee ousted during a racial firestorm that embarrassed the Obama administration, rejected an offer to return to the department on Tuesday. But in a cordial news conference with the man who asked her to leave — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack — she said she may do consulting work for him on racial issues.

USDA officials hastily forced Mrs. Sherrod to leave her job as Georgia’s director of rural development in July after abbreviated comments she made in an address in March and posted on the Internet were misconstrued as racist.

She has since received numerous apologies from the administration, including from President Obama himself, and Mr. Vilsack personally asked her to return. But she said at the news conference with a clearly disappointed Mr. Vilsack that she did not think she could say yes to a job “at this point, with all that has happened.”

Mr. Vilsack said she may work with the department in a consulting capacity in the future to help improve outreach to minorities.

“I look forward to some type of relationship with the department in the future,” said Mrs. Sherrod, who is black. “We do need to work on the issues of discrimination and race in this country.”

Mr. Vilsack had asked her to become the deputy director of the Office of Advocacy and Outreach, a new position designed to bolster the department’s historically fraught record on civil rights. He had also given her a chance to return to her former job. Both of them said Tuesday that Mrs. Sherrod may return to the department as a consultant once an ongoing review of the department’s efforts on race issues is completed.

“I think I can be helpful to him and the department if I just take a little break and look at how I can be more helpful in the future,” she said.

The two appeared friendly as Mr. Vilsack expressed his regret that Mrs. Sherrod wouldn’t return to USDA. He put his arm around her at the news conference and said he leaned on her hard to return.

“I did my best, I think it’s fair to say,” he said. “There’s no one better suited in the country to help us than Shirley.”

He said a consulting job may work better for Mrs. Sherrod, who was concerned about assuming administrative duties like budgeting. She said she was reluctant to be responsible for the weighty duties of the position she was offered.

“A new process is in place, and I hope it works,” she said. “I don’t want to be the one to test it.”

Mrs. Sherrod was forced out after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted an excerpted version of her remarks in March in which said she was initially reluctant to help a white farmer save his farm more than two decades ago, long before she worked for USDA. Mr. Vilsack and others, including the NAACP, condemned the remarks before grasping the full context of her speech, which was meant as a lesson in racial healing.

The NAACP also apologized for its reaction.

Mrs. Sherrod, who said she has gotten thousands of pieces of mail supporting her, repeated Tuesday that she plans to sue Mr. Breitbart. But she declined further questions on the subject.

As he had in the past, Mr. Vilsack said he took complete responsibility for Mrs. Sherrod’s ouster. Though the department had conversations with the White House at the time, and Mrs. Sherrod said she was told it was the White House who wanted her gone, Mr. Vilsack has said the decision was his.

“I know that I disappointed the president, I disappointed this administration, I disappointed the country, I disappointed Shirley,” he said. “I have to live with that.”

Mr. Vilsack said he talked to Mrs. Sherrod for 90 minutes Tuesday morning. The two discussed a settlement still pending in Congress for black farmers who have been victims of racism in the past by USDA officials, as well as other civil rights issues facing the department.

The USDA has a long history of complaints over its dealings with black farmers who sought out loans and other aid, and the government this year agree on a second round of damages stemming from a class-action lawsuit originally settled in 1999.

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