Vilsack Must Testify in Sherrod-Breitbart Suit
(CN) - U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack cannot duck dueling subpoenas in Shirley Sherrod's defamation suit against right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart, a federal judge ruled.
Sherrod, the former director of rural development in Georgia, sued Breitbart and Larry O'Connor, a Breitbart.com editor, over a video that Breitbart edited heavily to suggest that she was racist against white people.
Days after Breitbart's clip went viral in July 2010, Sherrod allegedly had to pull her car over to send an email on her BlackBerry, giving her resignation from the post with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In the video, taken from footage of a recent banquet hosted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Sherrod discusses how she felt about helping a poor white farmer in her capacity as Georgia field director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives some 24 years earlier.
Both Sherrod and O'Connor have subpoenaed Secretary Vilsack, who asserted that the decision to seek Sherrod's resignation was his alone. Despite rumors to the contrary, the White House has denied any involvement.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon on Monday deemed Vilsack's testimony "critical" to understanding why Sherrod lost her job.
"Secretary Vilsack has stated that it was his decision to request Sherrod's resignation," the nine-page opinion states. "He is the only one in a position to confirm that and to explain the relationship, if any, of that decision to the blog post and video clips at the heart of this defamation case. Secretary Vilsack, of course, was not the only government official aware of the video excerpts and blog post. He knows who counseled him and the contents of that counsel, as well as what other factual knowledge he had at the time he decided to ask for Sherrod's resignation. Secretary Vilsack also has similar knowledge regarding his decision to withdraw his resignation demand, apologize to Sherrod, and raise with her the possibility of returning to work at USDA. To say the least, his personal knowledge is critical to the resolution of this case."
Vilsack offered to ratify the remarks he made in two press conferences on July 21, 2010, and Aug. 24, 2010, in exchange for quashing the subpoenas.
Leon found, however, that reporters did not ask Vilsack the tough questions that he would face from the parties' lawyers.
"The press, which had very different motivations than do the parties to this case, did not ask the type of probing follow-up questions counsel expect to ask at this deposition regarding who he spoke to, what information he was presented with and considered, and how, if at all, different factors influenced his decision," the opinion states.
Neither of the parties' attorneys nor the USDA's press office immediately responded to requests for comment
Breitbart died of heart failure in early 2012 at the age of 43, weeks after he and O'Connor failed to have Sherrod's suit dismissed under D.C.'s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) law.
The D.C. Circuit likewise would not dismiss the case.