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DOE staffer claims retaliation over photos of secret meeting

Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2018 @ 6:48 PM
Updated: Wednesday, January 17, 2018 @ 6:47 PM

A former photographer at the Department of Energy says he lost his job in retaliation for making public photos of a meeting between Secretary Rick Perry and a coal baron peddling a wish list of policy initiatives that would directly benefit his company.

Simon Edelman has filed a federal whistleblower complaint alleging he was terminated from the agency after he provided the photos to two media outlets that published them in December. Edelman was at the March 29, 2017, meeting snapping shots as Robert "Bob" Murray handed Perry a four-page "action plan" to revive the nation's struggling coal industry. Murray is chairman and CEO of Ohio-based Murray Energy, one of the nation's largest coal producers.

Also attending the meeting were Perry's chief of staff and Andrew Wheeler, a coal company lobbyist later nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as the second-highest ranking official at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Copies of the plan were obtained earlier this month by The Associated Press and other media outlets. A review of the plan shows many of the proposals provided by the major GOP political donor were later advanced by the Trump administration.

Edelman and his lawyer, John Tye, are seeking a formal Justice Department investigation into what they allege was corrupt conduct by a public official. Edelman also filed a complaint with Energy's inspector general and a Senate oversight committee.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Edelman said he listened in as Murray detailed the actions he wanted the Trump administration to take. They included replacing members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accords and revoking the Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama's signature effort to limit planet-warming emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Edelman said he heard Perry respond, "I think we can help you on this."

Energy Department spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes denied anything improper occurred during the meeting.

"The assertions that this individual has made about Secretary Perry and the Department of Energy are ridiculous," Hynes said Wednesday. "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."

Hynes did not address Edelman's claims of retaliation.

Gary Broadbent, a spokesman for Murray, said the coal company CEO does not have a recollection of the exact statements he might have made in the meeting, which occurred nearly a year ago.

"Mr. Murray has frequently said that the Trump administration must advance reliable and low-cost electricity for all Americans and protect coal mining jobs," Broadbent said. "We applaud the actions taken by President Trump's administration, to date, to protect these jobs and to advance the energy security of the United States."

Records show Murray Energy contributed $300,000 to Trump's inaugural committee and has financially backed the campaigns of Perry, a former Texas governor and presidential candidate.

The AP reported last year that Murray had asked the Trump administration to issue an emergency order protecting coal-fired power plants from closing. Murray warned that failure to act could cause thousands of coal miners to be laid off and force his largest customer, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Solutions, into bankruptcy.

Perry ultimately rejected Murray's specific request, but later asked FERC to boost coal and nuclear plants by subsidizing their continued operation. The Republican-controlled commission voted unanimously earlier this month to reject Perry's claim that further retirements of coal-fired power plants pose a threat to reliability of the nation's electric grid.

Edelman said he was placed on administrative leave and subsequently dismissed from the agency in December after the photos of the meeting were published by In These Times, a left-leaning news site. He said he was escorted by the building by security and said some of his personal property was seized, including a laptop computer, photo equipment and three external hard drives. Edelman is demanding the return of his property as part of his complaint.

The photographer said he was motivated to make the photos public after seeing a published interview where he believes Murray misrepresented what occurred in the March meeting. Edelman said the free market should determine which sources of energy are profitable, not government regulations favoring a specific industry or company.

The photos were not classified and he believes he had a First Amendment right to release them.

"They're angry at me, but I didn't do anything wrong," Edelman said. "The Department of Energy are the ones breaking the law. And they kept all my stuff."

___

Follow AP environmental writer Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck

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Mueller investigation: Lawyer pleads guilty to lying to investigators in Russia probe

Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2018 @ 3:26 PM
Updated: Tuesday, February 20, 2018 @ 3:26 PM

Robert Mueller - Fast Facts

An attorney pleaded guilty Tuesday to lying to the FBI in the agency's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and its possible ties to President Donald Trump's campaign.

The charges against lawyer Alex Van Der Zwaan are the latest in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

READ MORE: Who is Rick Gates and why was he indicted by Robert Mueller?Who is Paul Manafort, the man indicted in Robert Mueller’s Russian investigation?What are Paul Manafort and Rick Gates charged with?MORE

Special Counsel Robert Mueller Files First Charges

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House Oversight Committee launches probe into Rob Porter's employment

Published: Wednesday, February 14, 2018 @ 2:40 PM

Who is Rob Porter?

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is investigating the White House’s employment of staff secretary Rob Porter in the wake of allegations that he abused his two ex-wives, committee chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, said Wednesday.

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Porter submitted his resignation Feb. 2.

Gowdy told CNN that the committee launched a probe Tuesday night into Porter’s employment and when White House officials knew about the domestic violence allegations levied against him.

Porter has denied any wrongdoing.

"We are directing inquiries to people that we think have access to information we don't have. You can call it official. You can call it unofficial,” Gowdy told CNN. “I'm going to direct questions to the FBI that I expect them to answer.”

Porter resigned Feb. 2 after his ex-wives went public with allegations of domestic abuse and said they spoke with federal authorities about the claims, prompting critics to question why he had remained employed in the Trump administration. The allegations held up a background check needed to grant Porter a security clearance for work in the White House. Officials said he was working on an interim security clearance.

The process to get Porter his clearance was ongoing at the time of his resignation.

“How do you have any job if you have credible allegations of domestic abuse?” Gowdy asked on CNN. “I am biased toward the victim.”

>> Related: White House ‘could have done better’ handling Rob Porter allegations, spokesman says

Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, and his second, Jennifer Willoughby, told the FBI about the alleged domestic violence in January 2017, after they were contacted while Porter was applying for his security clearance, according to The Washington Post.

White House officials defended Porter in the immediate aftermath of the allegations, and President Donald Trump has faced criticism for what critics called his lack of care for the victims and his focus on the fact that Porter has denied the claims.

“I was surprised by (the allegations), but we certainly wish him well, and it’s a tough time for him,” Trump told reporters in Washington on Friday. “He did a very good job when he was in the White House, and we hope he has a wonderful career. … It was very said when we heard about it, and certainly he’s also very sad now. He also, as you probably know, says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that.”

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with White House Secretary Rob Porter (C) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) (R) as they return to the White House December 4, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images)(Pool/Getty Images)

Holderness told The Daily Mail that Porter was verbally abusive throughout their relationship, which started in 2000, but that things escalated after they were wed in June 2003. She said Porter kicked her during their honeymoon and during a 2005 vacation in Italy, punched her in the face.

Willoughby, who married Porter in November 2009 and separated from him in early 2010, told The Daily Mail that Porter was verbally abusive.

Willoughby obtained a protective order against Porter in June 2010 after she said he violated their separation agreement and refused to leave her apartment, according to court records obtained by The Daily Mail. In the complaint, Willoughby said Porter punched in a glass door while she was locked inside the apartment, but left after he heard she was on the phone with police.

She told the Mail that in December 2010, he dragged her out of a shower while she was naked in order to yell at her.

The couple was divorced in 2013.

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Veteran resident dies, receives patriotic farewell from nursing home

Published: Saturday, February 10, 2018 @ 12:20 PM

File image of the American flag.
Christopher Bruno, Freeimages
File image of the American flag.(Christopher Bruno, Freeimages)

A veterans nursing home in South Carolina honored a resident who died this week with a patriotic farewell that has gone viral.

>> Read more trending news 

In a Facebook post, Laura Dorn thanked the Richard M. Campbell Veterans Nursing Home in Anderson for taking such good care of her father, Doug Timmons, who had Alzheimer's disease and was a resident of the facility for the last three years. Dorn wrote that her father died early Thursday morning and the staff took the time to honor him for his service as his body was removed from the facility. In a video that Dorn posted, Timmons' body, draped with an American flag, is wheeled out as staff line up and a musical tribute plays.

In a Facebook review of the nursing home, Dorn thanked the "caring, accommodating and selfless" staff who she said treated her father like family. Dorn wrote, "They treated my Dad with dignity and respect from the first moment there until he drew his last breath, then sent him off with a hero's procession."

The video has received more than 3 million views.

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Trump thanks Putin for expelling U.S. diplomats

Published: Friday, August 11, 2017 @ 4:16 PM

President Donald Trump walks to Marine One before departing from the White House on August 4, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump is traveling to Bedminster, N.J. for his summer break. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
President Donald Trump walks to Marine One before departing from the White House on August 4, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump is traveling to Bedminster, N.J. for his summer break. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump on Thursday said that he is “very thankful” that Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to expel hundreds of U.S. diplomats, telling reporters in New Jersey that the decision will help the U.S. cut down on salaries.

>> Read more trending news

“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down our payroll, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go a large number of people because now we will have a smaller payroll,” Trump said, according to The Washington Post. “There’s no real reason for them to go back. … We’re going to save a lot of money.”

The comments were Trump’s first addressing Putin’s decision last month to expel 755 diplomats and technical personnel from the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Russia, according to The Post.

Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 included a 29 percent cut of State Department funding, NPR reported.

But White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in an email to The New York Times on Friday that the president was making a joke.

“He was being sarcastic,” she told the newspaper.

Still, some lawmakers questioned Trump’s decision to praise Putin.

“After weeks of silence regarding Vladimir Putin's outrageous expulsion of hundreds of U.S. embassy personnel, President Trump once again let Russia off the hook and instead insulted America’s diplomats,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

“No doubt, the President's staff will eventually try to clean up after the parade by claiming it was a joke, but there's nothing funny about this,” he said.

According to Politico, “many, if not most, of the positions cut will likely be those of locally hired Russian staffers. The local staff who are let go will likely get severance payments, but cost savings are possible in the long run.”

Unidentified sources told the news site that most of the U.S. diplomats made to leave Russia will be moved to different posts.

Putin’s decision to kick American diplomats out of the country came in retaliation for sanctions placed on Russia by the U.S. Trump signed the bill, which passed with strong bipartisan support and required congressional approval to lift the restrictions, although he criticized it as being “seriously flawed.”

Vladimir Putin - Fast Facts

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