Who Tipped Off Shirley Sherrod Last Week? – UPDATE

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A little noticed statement from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s press conference yesterday was his admission that Shirley Sherrod tried to alert the USDA last week of the tape’s existence. Andrew Breitbart, who has not disclosed who sent him the tape, posted it on Biggovernment.com Monday morning. But Vilsack said this yesterday:

(The video is on C-SPAN. This section begins around 12:20)

I talked with Shirley about the fact that she had e-mailed the office the Thursday prior to this video being – coming an issue. I did not receive the e-mail because it was not addressed properly to me. In other words, there was a problem with the e-mail address so it never came to my attention.

She had received some indication of this clip being available and she, in an effort to try to respond, sent an e-mail 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 out.

This is rather curious. Did Breitbart actually call Sherrod for comment last week? Did whoever leaked the tape inform Sherrod they were doing so? Ann Coulter, pretty hilariously, suggests Breitbart was set up.

UPDATE: A story today co-written by former Swampland star Karen Tumulty sheds a bit more light on this:

In an interview Wednesday, Breitbart said he first learned of Sherrod’s speech in April, when a source he declined to name sent him a DVD copy of it. But the DVD did not work. He said he forgot about the speech until last week, when the NAACP denounced what it called “racist elements” of the “tea party” movement.

Angry at the NAACP’s move, Breitbart said he contacted the source again asking for copies of the speech and obtained two edited clips over the weekend.

After Breitbart first referred to the existence of the video clip during a radio interview last Thursday, Sherrod tried to contact Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan through e-mail accounts the department had created for employee feedback. But they are checked infrequently, a spokesman said.

I’ve asked a USDA press secretary to release Sherrod’s e-mail warning the department. I will post it if the department opts to release it. The spokesman said the e-mail was also sent to Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen A. Merrigan, but landed in an inbox that receives messages from the public. (The Washington Post story excerpted above says the inbox was for employee feedback; the USDA press secretary I spoke to said it was a “public” e-mail.) Merrigan’s staff only checks this inbox periodically, the press secretary said.

Correspondence between government officials often falls under auspices of the Freedom of Information Act, but I’m not holding my breath that the department will readily offer up the e-mail message. Its very existence exposes a pretty glaring flaw in the department’s communication system. Even if Shirley Sherrod didn’t have Vilsack’s personal e-mail address handy, she certainly should been able to get in touch with him and Merrigan, especially sometime in a four-day period. Commenting on this point, Vilsack said yesterday, “That’s one of the issues that we’re going to address in terms of this review.” (The department is currently taking a hard look at the entire incident.)

The tale of the mysterious e-mail also shows how easily the USDA could have avoided this entire debacle. What would have happened if they had been able to cut Breitbart’s efforts off at the pass? Well, Sherrod might never have been fired, for one thing.