Energy Department photographer Simon Edelman is seeking whistleblower protection after the department placed him on administrative leave and seized personal belongings he kept at the office.
In a Jan 4. complaint, Edelman, the department’s chief creative officer, said that he had given official photos to The Washington Post and In These Times magazine of a March 29 meeting between coal mining executive Robert Murray and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The photos show the two men hugging and discussing an “action plan” for overhauling federal energy regulations.
Edelman said in the complaint filed with the department’s inspector general that he felt there was something improper about the close similarity between Perry’s proposed changes to electricity regulations to prop up coal and nuclear plants in September and the plan Murray presented months earlier, and decided to make the photos available to both publications.
In These Times published its article on Dec. 6 without disclosing the source of the photos.
Yet on Dec. 7, after Edelman arrived for work, he was summoned to his supervisor’s office and told to sign a form putting him on administrative leave with pay. Bob House, director of public affairs and Edelman’s boss, wouldn’t say why. Edelman refused to sign without a lawyer. Then he was escorted out of the building without being able to collect his belongings.
The Post published its own story online on Dec. 8.
The Energy Department instructed Edelman to call in every day to Bill Turenne, director of strategic communications and messaging. On Dec. 8, Turenne told 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, according to Edelman.
“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 complaint.
Edelman’s lawyer, John Napier Tye, founder of a firm called Whistleblower Aid, said in an interview Wednesday that the Energy Department had improperly dismissed Edelman, urged him to destroy evidence of possible wrongdoing and reneged on its agreement to extend his contract for two more years.
Tye said Edelman’s disclosures were lawful because photos taken by government officials are in the public domain and cannot be copyrighted. By sharing them, Edelman was exercising his First Amendment rights, Tye said.
In addition, in a Jan. 17 letter to the Justice Department and the FBI, Tye said that Edelman’s photos show “probable cause to open a criminal investigation.”
The Energy Department disputed the claims.
“The assertions that this individual has made about Secretary Perry and the Department of Energy are ridiculous. They are based on his own subjective opinions and personal agenda,” department spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said. “Industry and other stakeholders visit the Department of Energy on a daily basis. The Secretary welcomes their input and feedback to strengthen the American energy sector. This meeting was no different.”
Tye said in his letter to Justice and the FBI that federal statutes bar the Energy Department from taking “personnel action” against an employee who discloses information if “the employee or applicant reasonably believes evidences . . . any violation of any law, or regulation, or . . . an abuse of authority.”
Tye also filed a complaint with the Massachusetts bar association against Jocelyn Richards, an Energy Department lawyer who he says participated in the “retaliation” against Edelman by advising Turenne on the destruction of documents and by shortening Edelman’s two-year contract extension agreed to in November to just 30 days.
“They still haven’t given me a reason why I was put on leave,” Edelman said in an interview. “I wasn’t fired.”