Former Energy employee says he was fired for leaking photos of Perry with coal mogul

Former Energy employee says he was fired for leaking photos of Perry with coal mogul
© Camille Fine

A former photographer for the Department of Energy said he was illegally fired for leaking photographs of Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryTrump names Mulvaney acting chief of staff Chris Christie declines White House chief of staff role Trump says he's down to five candidates for chief of staff MORE meeting with a coal mogul.

Simon Edelman filed a whistleblower complaint earlier this month with the Energy Department’s Office of Inspector General, saying leaking the photos was protected by the First Amendment.

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“In retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights, Mr. Edelman was placed on administrative leave, had thousands of dollars of personal possessions unlawfully seized … and was unlawfully terminated from his job effective December 27, 2017,” John Tye, an attorney for Whistleblower Aid who is representing Edelman, wrote in the complaint.

The New York Times first reported on Edelman’s complaint Wednesday.

Edelman told The Hill in an interview that he exposed wrongdoing by releasing the photos, since he believes Perry's actions were corrupt and a quid pro quo on behalf of Murray Energy Corp. head Bob Murray.

"I felt that I was doing the right thing by exposing what I had seen and what I had proof of," he said.

Edelman served as a staff reporter for the Department of Energy and had worked at the agency since 2015.

He took photos in March 2017 of Perry meeting with Murray. The images showed the two hugging and a memo Murray gave to Perry outlining steps he wanted the Trump administration to take to save the coal industry.

Edelman said one of those steps led directly to Perry’s September proposal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to require electric grid operators to pay more money to coal and nuclear plants.

"I think we can help you with this," Perry said, according to Edelman, referring to Murray's requests.

Murray has denied he wrote the plan or had undue influence on it, and FERC has rejected the plan altogether.

In November, Edelman sent the photos and his recounting of the previously unknown meeting to In These Times and The Washington Post, which both published them.

The day after the In These Times report, Edelman was put on paid leave, he says in the complaint. He was later told he would not get a new two-year contract, which he said Energy officials had promised him earlier.

In addition to the whistleblower complaint, Edelman is asking the Inspector General to investigate Perry for “criminal corruption and federal ethics violations,” arguing the meeting showed a quid pro quo between Perry and Murray.

Tye also sent requests to Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump, Christie met to discuss chief of staff job: report Chief justice of California Supreme Court leaves GOP over Kavanaugh confirmation Trump attorney general pick a prolific donor to GOP candidates, groups: report MORE and FBI Director Christopher Wray to investigate Perry for potential criminal charges.

The Energy Department said Edelman’s allegations are unfounded.

“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,” spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said in a statement.

“Industry and other stakeholders visit the Department of Energy on a daily basis," she said. "The secretary welcomes their input and feedback to strengthen the American energy sector. This meeting was no different.”

Edelman said he wants his photography equipment and computer back, and he'd like to be reinstated in his job.

"I’m hoping that I’m able to get my job back, because I was having a great time there," he said.

This story was updated at 4:22 p.m.