Rick Perry

Story highlights

The Energy Department did not comment on why photographer Simon Edelman was let go from his position

Washington CNN  — 

Photographer Simon Edelman claims he was fired from his job at the Energy Department after capturing and leaking a controversial hug between Energy Secretary Rick Perry and a coal executive.

Now he’s hoping that he can get his job back, with help from nonprofit law firm Whistleblower Aid.

“Mr. Edelman exercised his First Amendment rights and shared some of his public domain photographs with our free press … in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights, Mr. Edelman … was unlawfully terminated from his job effective Dec. 27, 2017,” John Napier Tye, founder of Whistleblower Aid, wrote in a letter to the Energy Department’s acting inspector general.

The document also alleges that Edelman had thousands of dollars in personal possessions “unlawfully seized.”

The photos, which were reviewed by CNN, show Perry and Robert E. Murray, head of coal mining company Murray Energy, during a private meeting in March 2017 at the Department of Energy headquarters in Washington, DC. One photo shows the two hugging. Another image is of a cover sheet for an “action plan” related to regulatory changes for the coal industry. Murray was a major donor to President Donald Trump.

In statements in the complaint, Edelman claims that during the meeting, Murray asked Perry for “policy changes that would directly benefit Murray Energy Corporation and Bob Murray’s personal financial position.” Edelman said he heard Perry tell Murray: “I think we can help you with this.”

Edelman told The New York Times in an interview that leaking the images “seemed like that was the right thing to do – exercising my First Amendment rights to get the information out there.” The New York Times and The Washington Post published the images last year.

Edleman and his attorney also argue that there is probable cause for the inspector general to open an investigation into Perry and Murray. They are also requesting Edelman be reinstated to the position and that his personal possessions be returned.

In an email statement to CNN, Department of Energy spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes called Edelman’s assertions about Perry and the Energy Department “ridiculous.”

“They are based on his own subjective opinions and personal agenda. Industry and other stakeholders visit the Department of Energy on a daily basis,” she said in a statement. “The secretary welcomes their input and feedback to strengthen the American energy sector. This meeting was no different.”

The Energy Department did not comment on why Edelman was let go from his position.

Gary M. Broadbent, media relations director for Murray Energy Corp., said: “Mr. Murray does not have a recollection as to the exact statements allegedly made 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 in the statement, provided to CNN. “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.”

Broadbent said they have not seen the complaint on behalf of Edelman, and “accordingly, we are unable to comment on it.”

CNN’s René Marsh contributed to this report.