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SeaWorld claims ethics breaches by OSHA investigator

By Vivian Kuo, CNN
updated 6:30 PM EST, Fri February 28, 2014
  • OSHA referred case after allegations first surfaced
  • Lara Padgett investigated SeaWorld after an orca killed a trainer in 2010
  • SeaWorld files complaint, saying that Padgett divulged its trade secrets
  • It says Padgett attended "Blackfish" premiere, accepted free lodging

(CNN) -- SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is requesting the U.S. Department of Labor investigate the conduct of employee Lara Padgett, alleging she violated the ethics code for government employees.

Padgett is an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) agent who investigated SeaWorld for safety violations after the death of Dawn Brancheau, a veteran trainer killed by a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum in 2010.

As a result of some of Padgett's findings, OSHA determined SeaWorld violated the Occupational Safety and Health Act, saying it exposed its workers to a "known hazard" in the workplace.

OSHA fined SeaWorld and restricted the interaction between trainers in the water with the killer whales, a decision that SeaWorld has appealed.

Killer whales, or orcas, were first put on public display in the 1960s. The best known killer whale shows in the United States are at SeaWorld Parks, which are synonymous with their "Shamu" killer whale shows, seen here. Killer whales, or orcas, were first put on public display in the 1960s. The best known killer whale shows in the United States are at SeaWorld Parks, which are synonymous with their "Shamu" killer whale shows, seen here.
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In a 228-page complaint filed Thursday, SeaWorld said it has obtained information showing Padgett is biased against the aquatic park and accused her of engaging in cronyism with the producers of the documentary, "Blackfish," produced by Magnolia Pictures and acquired by CNN Films last year.

The film explores the concept of keeping killer whales in captivity for entertainment. It set off a national debate resulting in significant backlash for SeaWorld.

SeaWorld has long called "Blackfish" one-sided and claimed it is the product of animal activists.

A spokesman for the Department of Labor's inspector general said the office had received the complaint but could issue no further comment. Attempts to reach Padgett were not immediately successful Friday.

Department of Labor spokesman Jesse Lawder said OSHA referred the matter to the inspector general in January, immediately after allegations first surfaced, and that the agency is awaiting the results of that investigation.

In the complaint, SeaWorld alleges Padgett attended the 2013 Sundance Film Festival with "Blackfish" producers and accepted lodging free of charge.

SeaWorld provided CNN with several purported photos of Padgett, lifted from what appear to be her personal social media accounts, showing the federal employee in various photos with the film's cast and crew -- including a picture of the group in a "Charlie's Angels" pose, complete with air guns, at the film's premiere in New York.

The company also accused Padgett of disclosing confidential information.

"Blackfish" associate producer Tim Zimmermann asked to borrow a witness' thumb drive and was subsequently seen working with Padgett on a laptop computer, the complaint says.

The witness then found new documents related to OSHA's investigation on the drive after it was returned -- documents, the complaint states were clearly labeled as SeaWorld trade secrets. The complaint does not identify the witness.

Zimmermann told CNN no confidential documents were shared with him.

"I have no idea what to make of these accusations," he said. "Lara Padgett never shared documents with 'Blackfish.' There are no documents in the film."

What's more, Padgett was not invited to Sundance by the "Blackfish" crew, Zimmermann said. She stayed in the house where the crew stayed for a few nights due to a lodging shortage in the area, but she "came on her own dime," he said.

" 'Blackfish' does not have any, did not use any confidential documents," Zimmermann said. "We obviously knew who she was. We tried to interview her, but ... all of OSHA declined to participate."

He added, "Any feelings she had on SeaWorld, it was on her own."

Government employees are prohibited from divulging trade secrets. They face imprisonment, fines or termination if found in violation.

"We believe that this conduct demonstrates that she was influenced by improper considerations, and failed to bring the appropriate objectivity, in the investigation of the death of whale trainer Dawn Brancheau," the complaint states.

"SeaWorld further believes that Ms. Padgett's disclosure of confidential information and other conduct reflect an intense bias and a desire to assist those in the animal rights community who have publicly, and for many years, demonstrated a desire to damage SeaWorld as a viable business."

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