SeaWorld complaint alleges misconduct by federal employee who investigated trainer death

  • Article by: KYLE HIGHTOWER , Associated Press
  • Updated: February 28, 2014 - 3:00 PM
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In an undated handout photo, an orca whale named Tilikum that killed a trainer, in a scene from "Blackfish," a critical documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite about whales in captivity. SeaWorld Entertainment, which has come under fire in the wake of the movie, struck back Feb. 27, 2014, with a complaint about a government official who investigated the company, for her supposed cozy relations with animal rights activists and involvement in the film.

Photo: Gabriela Cowperthwaite/Magnolia Pictures , via New York Times

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MIAMI — SeaWorld has filed a complaint alleging that an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigator who probed a SeaWorld trainer's death engaged in unethical conduct by fraternizing with makers of a documentary critical of the park.

The six-page complaint, sent to the Labor Department on Thursday, states that SeaWorld believes that OSHA investigator Lara Padgett "violated the Standards of Ethical Conduct for government employees...as well as other requirements of federal law."

"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 at SeaWorld of Florida," the complaint says. "We believe that this continues to influence her ongoing enforcement efforts with regard to SeaWorld."

Padgett investigated the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Brancheau was pulled into a pool by 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum and drowned.

The complaint also includes what it says are examples of Padgett's violations of federal statute, such as posting critical comments about SeaWorld on social media and pictures of her attending film festivals with makers of the 2013"Blackfish" documentary.

"Evidence compiled over the past year, and presented to the federal Office of Inspector General, suggests that the OSHA compliance officer who led the inspection of SeaWorld Orlando following the death of killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau, may have acted with a different agenda, one that is sympathetic to animal rights activism," SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs wrote in an email statement to The Associated Press. "We are confident that the federal government, the Department of Labor and OSHA will properly investigate this matter and handle it appropriately."

OSHA spokesman Michael D'Aquino said the agency turned the complaint over to the Office of the Inspector General in January immediately after the allegations were made. He said Padgett still works for the agency. The Office of the Inspector General declined comment.

A message left with "Blackfish" director Gabriela Cowperthwaite was not immediately returned.

In its complaint SeaWorld also said that it has obtained evidence that Padgett disclosed confidential SeaWorld documents "as well as documents submitted in conjunction with a confidential medication before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals."

That evidence, the complaint said, includes written and videotaped statements from an eyewitness who said that at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival a "Blackfish" producer — Tim Zimmermann — asked to borrow thumb drive from Padgett that was related SeaWorld's case with OSHA.

"Blackfish" explores what may have caused Tilikum to kill Brancheau, a veteran SeaWorld trainer.

The orca also was involved in two other deaths. The documentary argues that killer whales, when in captivity, become more aggressive to humans and each other.

Since the documentary, several entertainers have pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. parks. Several musical acts pulled out of SeaWorld Orlando's Bands, Brew and BBQ concert series in February, citing the documentary "Blackfish." The list included Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, 38 Special, Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson and Heart.

Many of the performers canceled after fans started a campaign petition on the advocacy website Change.org.

OSHA said in December that it was looking into reports that Padgett, who helped investigate Brancheau's death, had fraternized with the makers of "Blackfish" at film festivals around the nation.

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