WASHINGTON, June 9, 2014 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will have to provide a deposition in the defamation suit brought by former USDA employee Shirley Sherrod against the late conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled Monday.
Leon told attorneys at a hearing in Washington that he was denying the government’s request that Vilsack be excused from testifying. The Justice Department had argued that as a high-ranking government official, Vilsack should not have to testify. It also said there was little the secretary could add that was relevant to the case.
The judge disagreed. “It is clear in this case that Secretary Vilsack has personal knowledge that is directly relevant to the claims and defenses here,” Leon wrote in an opinion.
Sherrod was fired from her job as the USDA’s Georgie State Director for Rural Development in July 2010 after Breitbart posted video excerpts from a speech she gave to an NAACP gathering earlier that year in which she appeared at first to be admitting to discriminating against people due to their race. Later, the NAACP released the full video of the speech, which made it clear that she was retelling a story that had transpired years earlier.
Before that happened, however, she was fired from her job by Vilsack, who later apologized and offered Sherrod another position at USDA. She turned down the offer and filed suit against Breitbart in February 2011, alleging that a Breitbart blog post and video excerpts falsely portrayed her as a racist and led to her being forced to resign. Both Sherrod and a co-defendant in the case, former Breitbart business partner Larry O’Connor, subpoenaed Vilsack in the case.
In denying the government’s request to quash the subpoenas, Leon said Vilsack’s knowledge of how the firing went down is “critical to the resolution of the case.” He said the secretary is the only person who can “explain the relationship, if any,” of the decision to seek Sherrod’s resignation “to the blog post and video clips at the heart of this defamation case.”
Leon said he was limiting the videotaped deposition to two hours and that it could take place on a weekend to accommodate Vilsack’s busy schedule.
Breitbart died in 2012. His wife, Susannah Breitbart, was substituted as a defendant in October 2013.
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