A U.S. Department of Energy photographer is seeking whistleblower protection after the agency put him on administrative leave for sharing images he took that may document an improper relationship between Energy Secretary Rick Perry and coal mining mogul Robert Murray.
According to The Washington Post, Simon Edelman, the DOE’s chief creative officer, filed a whistleblower complaint with his agency’s Office of Inspector General, which is charged with investigating reports of fraud, waste, and abuse within the department. Such complaints would typically come from whistleblowers within the DOE or whistleblowers with a close working relationship with the agency, such as a contractor.
The Jan. 4 complaint explains that Mr. Edelman took photos of Sec. Perry and Mr. Murray in a March 29 meeting discussing an “action plan” to dismantle federal energy regulations. Some of the photographs show the two men hugging. Mr. Edelman shared the images with The Washington Post and In These Times magazine, which published them in December.
Mr. Edelman says he shared the images because they document a potentially improper relationship between the DOE and a coal mining executive, especially since Sec. Perry’s proposed changes to energy regulations that prop up coal and nuclear plants closely resemble a plan Mr. Murray had presented months earlier. The images contradict statements Mr. Murray made that he “had nothing to do” with Sec. Perry’s generous overtures to the coal industry.
On Dec. 7, the day after In These Times published the images between Sec. Perry and Mr. Murray online, Mr. Edelman was summoned to his supervisor’s office and ordered to sign a form putting him on administrative leave with pay. After Mr. Edelman refused to sign without a lawyer, he was escorted out of the building and not allowed to collect his belongings, The Washington Post reported.
The DOE told Mr. Edelman to call in every day to Bill Turenne, the agency’s director of strategic communications and messaging. On Dec. 8, Mr. Turenne ordered Mr. Edelman to “either destroy photos contained in a Google document or transfer rights to the Energy Department, which had instructed employees to use their personal Google accounts,” The Washington Post reported.
“You can delete everything, or we can send someone to your house to stand over your shoulder and watch you do it,” Turenne told Edelman, according to the whistleblower complaint.
In addition to improperly dismissing Mr. Edelman and ordering him to destroy evidence of possible wrongdoing, the DOE also reneged on its agreement to extend Mr. Edelman’s employment contract for an additional two years, the whistleblower complaint alleges.
Mr. Edelman and his lawyer say that the DOE is engaging in whistleblower retaliation with its heavy-handed and illegal tactics intended to silence Mr. Edelman. They claim photos taken by government officials such as Mr. Edelman are in the public domain and can’t be copyrighted.
Mr. Edelman was also acting within his First Amendment rights by sharing the images, his lawyer told The Washington Post.
Additionally, Mr. Edelman’s lawyer sent a letter to the Department of Justice and the FBI saying Mr. Edelman’s photos of the Perry-Murray meeting show “probable cause to open a criminal investigation.”
The letter also states that federal statutes bar the Energy Department from taking retaliatory action against an employee who discloses information if “the employee or applicant reasonably believes to have witnessed ” . . . any violation of any law, or regulation, or . . . an abuse of authority,” The Washington Post reported.