SeaWorld Demands Probe of Investigator's 'Blackfish' Ties

After being featured in an unflattering documentary, SeaWorld now says it has evidence tying a government investigator to a leak of company trade secrets.

Blackfish might not have made the cut for best documentary at the Oscars, but the critical film remains popular and has been a sore point for SeaWorld Entertainment.

On Thursday, the owner of the ocean-themed parks asked the Labor Department's Inspector General to probe one government worker's ethical conduct, citing among other things, the worker's involvement with the makers of Blackfish, which SeaWorld believes contained "highly misleading attacks upon SeaWorld and its mission toward killer whales."

The letter targets Lara Padgett, an investigator at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), who is accused of being "influenced by improper considerations and [having] failed to bring the appropriate objectivity in the investigation of the death of whale trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld of Florida."

The documentary featured Brancheau's drowning death at the hands of a whale named Tilikum.

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In June, 2012, an administrative judge determined that SeaWorld had violated the "general duty clause" of the Occupational Safety and Health Act with regards to Brancheau's death. SeaWorld then filed a petition for review with the U.S. Court of Appeal for the D.C. Circuit, where a decision is pending.

SeaWorld believes that Padgett has been "openly hostile" to the company and attaches a timeline of her activity, which SeaWorld says "includes promotion of the movie Blackfish and the book Death at SeaWorld, during the times that she was actively engaged, as a government official, in investigating and issuing citations to SeaWorld.

"Barely one month after being deposed," the letter continues, "she attended the Sundance Film Festival to preview Blackfish, where she is reported to have shared lodging in a private vacation home with people who participated in the making of the movie; and a little over two weeks following her issuance to SeaWorld of a Repeat Citation, Ms. Padgett was photographed in an 'air gun' pose attending the Blackfish premiere with the director and the cast and crew at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City."

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SeaWorld also believes that Padgett violated ethics by allegedly disclosing confidential SeaWorld documents from legal proceedings. Seaworld says it has obtained evidence showing this, including an eyewitness statement to the effect that at the 2013 Sundance Festival, an associate producer of the film obtained OSHA investigation files from Padgett. (The letter notes that the administrative judge has determined that the documents are not trade secrets. SeaWorld disagrees.) SeaWorld is also pointing to the existence of a thumb drive in its position that was allegedly used at Sundance.

Padgett couldn't be reached for comment.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Blackfish associate producer and film writer Tim Zimmerman has said Padgett did not participate in the film's production.

"In fact, we repeatedly tried to secure interviews with her, her OSHA supervisor, Les Grove, and OSHA attorney, John Black, and were refused each and every time," Zimmermann told the paper. "Nor did Lara Padgett ever provide Blackfish with a cache of OSHA documents, or any documents, from the OSHA inspection. Everything used in Blackfish related to OSHA came via standard FOIA requests."

SeaWorld says that Padgett's activities, including social media postings, "created a public impression that OSHA supported the Blackfish movie, Death at SeaWorld, and activists' anti-SeaWorld activity."

Here's the full letter:

SeaWorld Labor Dept. Complaint letter-and-all-documents from Dennis Schaal