He Leaked a Photo of Rick Perry Hugging a Coal Executive. Then He Lost His Job.

Posted January 17, 2018 6:54 p.m. EST

As a photographer for the Department of Energy, Simon Edelman regularly attended meetings with Secretary Rick Perry and snapped pictures for official purposes.

Now he is out of a job and seeking whistleblower protections after leaking photographs of Perry meeting with a major energy industry donor to President Donald Trump.

Late last year, Edelman said, he shared with journalists photos he shot at the private meeting between Perry and the campaign contributor, Robert E. Murray, the head of one of the country’s largest coal mining companies, Murray Energy.

One photo showed the two men embracing; another captured the cover sheet of a confidential “action plan” that Murray brought to the meeting last March calling for policy and regulatory changes friendly to the coal industry.

Democrats and some environmental groups seized on the photos as evidence of the energy industry’s direct line to Perry, who had been in the job less than a month when the meeting occurred.

Edelman, who has not previously disclosed his identity as the source of the photographs, said in an interview that he wanted to expose the close relationship between the two men. Based on the “action plan” and conversations he overheard, Edelman said, Perry had tilted the administration’s energy policy to favor Murray Energy and other coal companies.

“It seemed like that was the right thing to do — exercising my First Amendment rights to get the information out there,” said Edelman, who had worked at the agency since 2015 and whose job included photographing events that the agency promoted in news releases, on the web and elsewhere.

The day after the photos were published by In These Times, a liberal magazine, the Energy Department put Edelman on administrative leave, seized his personal laptop and escorted him out of its headquarters in Washington, he said. He was later told, without explanation, that his employment agreement had not been renewed, internal agency emails show.

Edelman has now filed a complaint with the Energy Department’s inspector general and, according to his lawyer, is seeking protections provided to federal whistleblowers. On its website, the Energy Department notes that it is illegal to retaliate against whistleblowers, who are typically protected when they alert a supervisor or the inspector general to information that they reasonably believe to constitute an abuse of authority, or other misconduct.

In the complaint, Edelman accuses the agency of retaliation and asks for his job back or at least to recover his laptop and other personal belongings. In addition, Edelman accused a former colleague of encouraging him to delete the photos of Perry and Murray, which Edelman and his lawyer argue are public records.

The Energy Department declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding Edelman’s employment, the status of the photos, or the details of his complaint, but a spokeswoman characterized his accusations as “ridiculous.” Edelman supported his complaint with emails and other documents, but some claims were based on his statements alone.

“They are based on his own subjective opinions and personal agenda,” the spokeswoman, Shaylyn Hynes, said in an email. “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.”

A spokesman for Murray said the coal executive “does not have a recollection as to the exact statements allegedly made nearly a year ago.” The spokesman, Gary Broadbent, added that “Mr. Murray has frequently said that the Trump administration must advance reliable and low-cost electricity for all Americans and protect coal mining jobs.”

The confidential documents Murray brought to his meeting with Perry called for “rescinding anti-coal regulations of the Obama administration” and cutting the staff of the Environmental Protection Agency “in at least half,” according to portions visible in Edelman’s photographs.

Last week, The New York Times obtained a copy of a separate memo written by Murray, and reported that the Trump administration had completed or was on track to fulfill most of the 16 policy and regulatory requests contained in it. Murray told The Times the two memos essentially covered the same material.

Edelman, a Democrat, came to the Energy Department under President Barack Obama two years ago after producing videos at a consulting firm in Chicago and serving as creative director for the electoral campaign of former Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois. After Trump’s election, Edelman said, he received greater responsibility, including photographing Perry’s meetings.

Edelman’s complaint offers a behind-the-scenes look at the meeting on March 29 between Perry and Murray, who have been friendly for many years. In addition to his company contributing $300,000 to the president’s inauguration — and personally holding a fundraiser for Trump during the campaign — Murray has been a financial backer of Perry, a former governor of Texas who has also run for president.

In a statement, Murray’s spokesman said the company had supported Republicans “who have been staunch defenders of the United States coal industry, and the jobs and family livelihoods that depend on it, and low-cost, reliable, fuel secure electricity for all Americans.”

The meeting started, the complaint said, with Perry giving Murray “a deep bear hug.” Once they got down to business, Murray presented the memo. “This needs to be done,” the complaint says Murray insisted.

Perry replied, “I think we can help you with this,” according to the complaint. Rattled by the exchange, Edelman said he stayed for about 15 minutes to keep listening, until he drew the attention of an agency official.

“How much does a photographer need of us just sitting around?” the complaint quotes the agency official as asking.

The photos sat for months without much attention.

Then, in September, Perry proposed that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission adopt a rule that would increase financial returns for power plants capable of stockpiling at least 90 days’ worth of fuel on-site — a plan that would effectively subsidize struggling coal and nuclear power plants, particularly in areas where Murray operates.

Without the change, Perry warned, the plants could shut down, which would threaten the “reliability and resiliency of our nation’s grid.”

That phrase rang a bell with Edelman. The cover page of Murray’s memo described a plan “to assist in the survival of our country’s coal industry, which is essential to power grid reliability.”

Edelman said he decided to share the photos with the media — The Washington Post published the images after In These Times — hoping to derail Perry’s proposed rule. The rule faced opposition from a cross section of environmental groups, energy companies, free-market advocates and former regulators, and last week, the energy commission rejected it.

Murray has said that the meeting with Perry was primarily about the need to study the resilience of the power grid, not to ask for specific actions by the energy commission or other arms of the federal government. Broadbent, his spokesman, said that “a word-for-word comparison” of the proposed rule and Murray’s action plan “reveals that they have only two words in common.”

On Dec. 7, the day after In These Times posted the photographs, and a day before they appeared online at The Washington Post, Edelman said he was summoned by his boss and told he was being placed on administrative leave with pay.

The agency later declined to extend his two-year employment agreement, which ended late last year, effectively dismissing him despite previously agreeing to extend him for two more years, Edelman said.

A security officer for the agency also refused to allow him to pack up certain personal belongings, Edelman said, including his laptop and camera equipment. The next day, a supervisor instructed Edelman in an email to provide the agency the administrative rights to the Google Drive folder where he stored the photos, according to a copy of the email reviewed by The Times.

Separately, another colleague warned him over the phone that “we can come to your home and have someone watch you delete it,” Edelman said. Edelman did not record the call.

In a phone call a few days later, which was recorded, the colleague reiterated that Edelman needed to transfer ownership of the folder. “I would suggest that doing it sooner rather than later would probably be a good thing for you,” the colleague said, according to the recording, which was heard by The Times.

“You can get access to a computer,” the colleague added, “even if you need to go to a freaking library to do it.” Edelman said the department had still not returned his laptop. Among the other items he said he left behind because of the hurried exit: a cake from his colleagues celebrating his 35th birthday.

Edelman hired a lawyer, John Tye, a former whistleblower from the State Department who works at Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit firm. Tye defended Edelman’s decision to keep the photos, arguing that they were “in the public domain” and were not classified, and that they had been stored on Edelman’s private drive at the Energy Department’s instruction.

By filing his complaint with the inspector general, Tye said, Edelman was seeking protections provided to federal whistleblowers, including prohibition from “adverse employment actions and dismissal.”

After Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., heard about the incident, his office contacted Edelman, who also shared the complaint with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is a neighbor in Washington. It was Whitehouse who shared the separate memo by Murray Energy with The Times.

“Federal employees should not be fired for doing their jobs,” Sanders said in a statement. “The Department of Energy must investigate as to why Mr. Edelman was fired.”