On March 29, 2017, Robert Murray, the founder and owner of one of the country’s largest coal companies, was ushered into a conference room at the Department of Energy’s headquarters, in Washington, D.C., for a meeting with Secretary Rick Perry. When Perry arrived, a few moments later, he immediately gave Murray a hug. To Simon Edelman, the Department’s chief creative officer, who was on hand to photograph the event, the greeting came as a surprise. At the time, Edelman did not know that Murray’s political-action committee and employees had donated more than a hundred thousand dollars to Perry’s Presidential campaign, in 2012, and almost as much to Donald Trump’s, in 2016. Nevertheless, Edelman told me recently, “this Spidey sense went off.” He captured a photo of the embrace, then lingered for fifteen minutes after the men sat down. “Murray did most of the talking,” he said. At one point, the coal magnate handed Perry a document containing his “Action Plan for reliable and low cost electricity in America and to assist in the survival of our Country’s coal industry.” Edelman snapped a closeup. Afterward, he said, he heard Perry tell Murray, “I think we can help you with this.”
Six months later, on September 28th, Perry sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, directing it to issue a new “rule to protect the resiliency of the electric grid.” The nation, Perry argued, was too vulnerable to power disruptions “caused by natural and man-made disasters,” and the best way to make the grid more reliable was to emphasize “traditional baseload generation”—in other words, coal and nuclear. Perry proposed that all coal plants in certain areas, including many that do business with Murray Energy, be required to keep a ninety-day supply of coal onsite to provide “fuel-secure” power. Edelman was alarmed: the language in Perry’s letter clearly echoed Murray’s “action plan.” Moreover, only a month earlier, a report by Perry’s own staff had concluded that “reliability is adequate today,” raising the question of why the rule was necessary. (A spokesman for Murray told me that he “had no prior notice of this rulemaking and was not involved in drafting the rule.”) In late November, not long before ferc was scheduled to vote on Perry’s plan, Edelman shared his photos of the March meeting with reporters from the progressive magazine In These Times and, later, the Washington Post. The photographs were published on December 6th. The next day, Edelman was placed on administrative leave.
Earlier today, Edelman filed a complaintwith the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the government agency that protects federal employees from improper personnel practices, especially reprisals for whistle-blowing. In the complaint, Edelman and his attorneys—John Tye, of the nonprofit law firm Whistleblower Aid, and Michael Ronickher, of the firm Constantine Cannon—argue that Edelman’s decision to circulate the photographs was based on his “reasonable belief that he was reporting evidence of criminal corruption, obstruction of justice, and ethics violations by officials within the Department of Energy,” including Perry. In Edelman’s view, Perry had run afoul of the “Fourteen Principles of Ethical Conduct for Federal Employees,” which forbid “preferential treatment to any private organization or individual” and “unauthorized commitments or promises of any kind purporting to bind the Government.” In a statement, a spokeswoman for Perry noted that “industry and other stakeholders visit the Department of Energy on a daily basis.” She called Edelman’s assertions “ridiculous.”
Edelman began working at the Energy Department in 2015, under Secretary Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist and professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After the Trump Administration took over, he told me, he noticed troubling changes to the agency’s culture. “Secretary Moniz wasn’t into social media,” Edelman said. “He left it to the public-affairs office to do what we wanted.” With Perry, Edelman went on, “it was more about his vanity. He loves Instagram.” The department’s press releases and social-media accounts spent more time discussing the Secretary and less time discussing the work of his staff. “Perry’s focus was seeing him in action—him meeting with people, him on the road,” Edelman said. “There was very, very little mention of what he was doing. We tried to intermix energy-related content as much as possible.” (One current D.O.E. employee agreed with this assessment, and pointed out that “Perry’s been on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ ”)
Later, Perry undertook a renovation of the Horseshoe, his wing of the Department, and asked Edelman to help. “I thought my job was to create stories and different ways of communicating with the public about the Energy Department,” Edelman said. “But it had become ‘How to reorganize the Secretary’s wing.’ ” These cultural changes came, of course, with political ones. Last August, posters appeared at the department depicting a dripping American flag with the warning “Every leak makes us weak.” (After a complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, the posters were removed.) Later, Edelman’s colleagues were reprimanded for posting a tweet on the Energy Department’s official account that used the phrase “climate change.” They have since felt pressure to refer instead to “extreme weather.”
On the day that Edelman was placed on leave, D.O.E. officials escorted him from the building and seized the belongings in his office, which included photo equipment, a laptop, a pair of hard drives, art work that his girlfriend had made, and a poster of the periodic table of the elements. The next day, Edelman told me, he received a call from Bill Turenne, in the Department’s public-affairs office, who demanded that he turn over the administrative rights to a Google Drive containing the March photographs or delete the images altogether. Turenne followed up a few days later; Edelman recorded the call, which ends with Turenne telling him that “doing it sooner rather than later would probably be a good thing for you.” In the O.S.C. complaint, Edelman’s attorneys point to the phone calls as evidence that he “suffered reprisal precisely because his photographs showed illegal, unethical, and embarrassing behavior by the Department of Energy.” They add that the demand that Edelman destroy “evidence of public corruption arguably constitutes criminal obstruction of justice.”
Less than a day after the hug photo was published, ferc requested a thirty-day extension of its deadline to vote on Perry’s “grid resiliency” plan. A week later, Edelman received an e-mail saying that he was fired, effective December 27th; no reason was given. Edelman proceeded to file complaints with the Energy Department’s Office of Inspector General, ferc, and the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. (The Office of the Inspector General, which interviewed Edelman in February, did not respond to requests for comment about whether an investigation is under way.) Four days later, ferc unanimously rejected Perry’s proposal. “By generating all this scrutiny and press coverage, I think Simon certainly played some role in preventing that rule from being implemented,” Tye, the Whistleblower Aid attorney, told me. Tom Devine, the legal director of the Government Accountability Project, said that the key challenge for Edelman will be establishing that his disclosure of the photo qualifies him as a whistle-blower. “The only problem is its unusual format,” Devine said. “Normally people do it with words rather than pictures.”
Edelman is demanding that he be reinstated in his old job, with no further retaliation from the department. He is also seeking compensation for his attorneys, who are handling his case pro bono, and for himself, to account for lost salary and benefits and the cost of replacing his electronics, which information-security consultants have advised him are “permanently compromised.” Finally, Edelman has asked to be removed from a security list that bars him from entering any government building. The Department of Energy, he told me, has blocked him on Twitter, but he’s prepared to let that one go.