SeaWorld Seeks Probe of OSHA Inspector Aiding FilmmakersChristopher Palmeri
SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. accused a federal workplace inspector of leaking confidential information to one of the producers of a film critical of the company’s handling of killer whales at its theme parks.
SeaWorld, based in Orlando, Florida, asked the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General to investigate Lara Padgett, a compliance officer for the Occupational Safety and Health Commission in Tampa, according to a copy of a letter dated yesterday. The company is challenging in federal court OSHA restrictions on trainers’ contact with orcas after one employee was killed during a show in 2010.
The theme-park operator is also battling negative publicity surrounding the documentary “Blackfish,” about the death of the trainer, Dawn Brancheau, at SeaWorld in Florida. The film, and a campaign by animal-rights activists, led entertainers including Willie Nelson to cancel concerts at parks. SeaWorld’s largest shareholder is Blackstone Group LP, the private equity investor, with a 42.8 percent stake, according to the company.
SeaWorld has obtained evidence that Padgett, the officer on the case, disclosed confidential information, “as well as documents submitted in conjunction with a confidential mediation before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals,” according to the letter. The evidence includes written and videotaped statements from a witness, SeaWorld said.
Padgett attended the “Blackfish” premiere and three festivals where the movie was shown, including the Sundance Film Festival, where she stayed free of charge at a home with people involved in making the picture and walked the red carpet with the cast and crew, according to SeaWorld’s complaint.
The company also cited numerous Facebook.com posts where Padgett allegedly cheered the film’s success and as well as media appearances by the filmmakers. In July of 2013, for example, she allegedly posted a link to a positive story about the film and wrote: “Wow ... take that SeaWorld!!! They’ve got to be getting nervous now.”
SeaWorld “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,” the company said in the letter.
SeaWorld fell 0.3 percent to $34.14 at the close in New York. The shares have gained 19 percent this year.
OSHA referred the matter to the Inspector General in January after allegations surfaced, Michael D’Aquino, a spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement.
Luis Santos, a spokesman for Scott Dahl, inspector general of the Labor Department, OSHA’s parent, confirmed the request from SeaWorld was received and had no further comment. Messages left for Padgett at OSHA’s Tampa office weren’t returned.
The Orlando Sentinel reported last month that OSHA was investigating Padgett’s conduct after photos of her socializing with “Blackfish” cast and crew appeared on the website Micechat.com.