ThinkProgress

Releasing this picture got a Department of Energy photographer fired. He doesn’t regret it.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray greet each other at a March 29, 2017 meeting at DOE headquarters in Washington. CREDIT: Simon Edelman

A Department of Energy photographer who was fired after releasing photos he took of a meeting between Energy Secretary Rick Perry and a prominent coal executive wants federal authorities to open a criminal investigation into what he calls “public corruption” between Perry and the industry official.

At the meeting, photographer Simon Edelman said Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray asked Perry for policy changes that would directly benefit his coal company and the executive’s personal financial position. The reason to release the photos “was to show the evidence of corruption that was taking place,” Edelman told ThinkProgress.

On December 6, 2017, In These Times, a left-leaning news magazine, published photos of the March 29, 2017, meeting at DOE’s headquarters in Washington. The photographs show a Murray proposal getting presented to Perry that would alter federal policies to favor coal plants, as a way to increase “grid reliability,” reporter Kate Aronoff wrote in the initial article that contained the photos.

As soon as the photos were published, questions arose about how In These Times obtained them. The mystery was solved when the New York Times published an article last week that explained Edelman, who held the title of chief creative officer at DOE, had provided In These Times, as well as the Washington Post, with copies of the photos.

In an interview, Edelman said he wanted to make the photos available to the public before federal energy regulators voted on an electric grid reliability and resiliency rule that would benefit Murray Energy and other coal companies. The proposal would have provided guaranteed profits to the coal and nuclear industries. As it turned out, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) voted unanimously on January 8 to reject the plan.

“These allegations are blatantly false. Indeed, a word-for-word comparison of the Grid Resiliency Pricing Rule and Mr. Murray’s Action Plan reveals that they only have two words in common,” Murray Energy spokesperson Gary Broadbent told ThinkProgress in an emailed statement.

The Energy Department had not responded to a request for comment at the time of this article’s publication.

A complaint prepared by John Napier Tye, co-founder of Whistleblower Aid, a new legal organization for government and private sector whistleblowers, explained that a statement made by Murray in November motivated Edelman to share the photos — what Edelman classifies as “public domain photographic evidence” — with the public.

In an interview with E&E News, Murray denied any involvement with Perry’s grid resiliency pricing rule. “I had nothing to do with it,” Murray said. “It was Mr. Murray’s lying that motivated Simon Edelman to share his public domain evidence with the American people,” the whistleblower complaint reads.

Simon Edelman was fired from his job as chief creative officer after releasing photos of a meeting between Energy Secretary Rick Perry and coal industry executive Robert Murray. CREDIT: Christopher Dilts

Broadbent reiterated the statements made by Murray to E&E News. “Mr. Murray has consistently stated that he had no prior notice of this rulemaking and was not involved in drafting the Grid Resiliency Pricing Rule. Any allegation otherwise is an absolute lie,” he said.

For the March 29 meeting, Edelman was assigned to take pictures of Perry and Murray. Edelman, who stayed in the room for about 15 minutes, said it was unlike any other meeting he had photographed at DOE, including events attended by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Perry’s predecessor. “This was not an everyday meeting that happens all the time,” he said. “This was different because they knew each other and they knew each other well. Perry gave him that hug. And then Murray got right down to business and gave him the action plan.”

Edelman said he didn’t know who Murray was at the time. But he still felt something was off. “When I heard them talking about the plan and then I saw what was on the desk, my instinct was to take the photo of them,” he said.

On the meeting room table was a document dated March 23, 2017, with Murray’s name at the top. The document, addressed to Perry, stated that an “action plan” was enclosed to achieve reliable and low-cost electricity and assist with the survival of the nation’s coal industry, according to Edelman’s photo.

Along with Perry and Murray, Andrew Wheeler, a lobbyist for Murray Energy at the time, was in attendance at the meeting, according to Edelman. Wheeler is still awaiting confirmation to be deputy administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency. At his confirmation hearing in November, Wheeler admitted he viewed Murray’s plan to roll back environmental regulations at the meeting with Perry.

The “Grid Resiliency Pricing Rule,” proposed by the DOE on September 28, would have essentially boosted revenue for coal and nuclear power plants. The rule called for subsidies for power plants that keep at least 90 days worth of fuel stored on site — something the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy found would “unarguably increase costs to consumers” by propping up power plants that aren’t economically viable at consumer expense.

Murray’s political contributions to both Trump and Perry, according to Edelman, and Perry’s attempt to get federal regulators to implement a plan that would benefit Murray Energy represented an example of “quid pro quo.” Murray’s action plan “very closely mirrored the proposal that was pushed forward” by the Energy Department, he said.

During his failed presidential run in 2012, Perry’s campaign reportedly received a six-figure contribution from Murray and his employees. Murray also was a major supporter of Trump’s presidential run in 2016. He donated $300,000 to Trump’s inauguration. Soon after Trump took office, Murray presented the president with a wish list of environmental rollbacks. The action plan presented to Perry at the March 29 meeting was a separate document, but included many of the same requests in the wish list, the New York Times reported in a January 9 article.

Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray presented Energy Secretary Rick Perry with an action plan at a March 29, 2017 meeting at DOE headquarters in Washington. CREDIT: Simon Edelman

Broadbent said he has not seen a copy of the whistleblower complaint and therefore is unable to comment on it. “There is no doubt, however, that President Trump and his administration has always supported the United States coal industry,” he said. “Murray Energy Corporation chose to support President Trump, Secretary Perry, and like-minded 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.”

Edelman’s release of the photos came at a major cost to his career. The day after In These Times published the photos, he was put on administrative leave. The Energy Department seized personal items, including thousands of dollars worth of computer equipment, from his workspace. On December 27, he was officially fired from his position, although Edelman said the department still has not provided an official reason for his termination.

“The job was a great job. I was actually enjoying my work in this administration more than the previous one,” said Edelman, who emphasized that none of the photos were classified. In his job, Edelman did not have a security clearance and was not permitted to enter secure areas at the department.

Tye, Edelman’s lawyer, said he sent a settlement proposal to DOE that contained a provision stating Edelman would not be prosecuted for anything during his time of employment at the department. DOE said it could not agree to that provision, Tye said. “The Department of Energy has never stated why he was fired or why they seized his stuff. As a lawyer, my perception is they know what they did was illegal. They don’t have a legal reason. And they want to avoid stating an illegal reason,” he said.

The whistleblower complaint includes a request for several actions, including reinstating Edelman to his job at DOE. The complaint also calls on DOE to open an internal ethics investigation against Perry and department staff, an FBI criminal investigation into Perry and Murray for “public corruption,” and an independent investigation into corruption and insider dealing at the Energy Department.

In response to Edelman’s firing, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said in a statement to the New York Times that federal employees should not be fired for doing their jobs. “The Department of Energy must investigate as to why Mr. Edelman was fired,” Sanders said.

Edelman said that the offices of Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) have reached out to him to talk about the case. After reading the New York Times article, Whitehouse’s staff wanted to meet with Edelman to get more information about what took place at the March 29 meeting between Perry and Murray.

“I’m definitely proud of what I did. I know that I did the right thing,” Edelman said. “I just hope that more people take this as inspiration that they can also speak up and blow the whistle because it’s an important part of democracy.”