OSHA investigates employee who inspected SeaWorld

SeaWorld: Lara Padgett appears to be animal activist pictured with 'Blackfish' crew

ORLANDO, Fla. - The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched an investigation into one of their own employees who was responsible for inspecting SeaWorld for safety violations following the 2010 death of killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau.

[WATCH: Local 6's original report]

Records show OSHA inspector Lara Padgett was in the midst of conducting a follow-up investigation at SeaWorld in January 2013 when she was photographed attending the premiere of the documentary "Blackfish" at the Sundance Film Festival.

That photo, which first appeared on the theme park news website MiceChat.com, shows Padgett posing with the cast and crew of the film.

"Blackfish", which takes a critical look at SeaWorld and marine mammal captivity, has been described by park officials as "misleading, inaccurate and agenda-driven."

While Padgett was attending the film festival in Park City, Utah, Local 6 has learned the OSHA employee spent several nights at a rental home that she shared with the filmmakers and former SeaWorld employees who appear in the documentary.

"The production paid for the house. No one was charged rent," said Blackfish associate producer Tim Zimmermann.

According to OSHA policy, "no employee shall solicit, accept, or agree to accept any form of gratuity where a conflict of interest situation may arise."

"OSHA is committed to fair and effective enforcement of safety and health requirements in the workplace. Allegations involving employee conduct are taken seriously and OSHA is investigating," said Jesse Lawder, OSHA spokesman.

Three months before attending Sundance, Padgett conducted a re-inspection at Shamu Stadium to see what safety improvements SeaWorld had made since Brancheau's death. According to records, the OSHA investigation remained open until June 2013 as Padgett tried to coordinate interviews with current SeaWorld employees. As a result of that re-inspection, OSHA issued SeaWorld a citation in June 2013 for repeat safety violations and a $38,500 fine. OSHA later withdrew that citation and fine due to an unrelated legal technicality.

Padgett's initial investigation into SeaWorld in 2010 prompted OSHA to issue citations for safety violations and $75,000 in fines against the marine park. A judge later reduced the fines to $12,000.

Padgett has appeared on OSHA's behalf at several court hearings involving the SeaWorld citations. Just before her testimony at an April 2013 hearing, Local 6 photographed Padgett wearing socks emblazoned with killer whales.

Padgett has also been photographed wearing a "Blackfish" T-shirt at screenings of the documentary.

According to records, Padgett has been employed by OSHA for 14 years, where she has investigated numerous workplace safety incidents in Central Florida, including the 2009 deadly monorail collision at Walt Disney World.

According to Zimmermann, Padgett "had nothing to do with the production of the
film." He added that Padgett first met the former SeaWorld trainers who appear in the documentary while interviewing them as part of her OSHA investigation.

"Her job was to get to know them," said Zimmermann.

Zimmermann said OSHA employees, including Padgett, declined to be interviewed for the documentary. SeaWorld officials also refused to participate in the film.

"We are aware of OSHA inspector Lara Padgett's affiliations with the cast of 'Blackfish'," said SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs. "To build its anti-captivity narrative, it relies on the accounts of people who are animal activists
and are anything but objective in their point of view. Ms. Padgett appears to be one of them."

SeaWorld officials are awaiting a court ruling on their appeal of the OSHA citations. If the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upholds the fines, OSHA inspectors could return to the marine park and issue more citations until OSHA is satisfied SeaWorld is adequately protecting its killer whale trainers.

SeaWorld also has the option of appealing an unfavorable ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Click here to find out about the Dawn Brancheau Foundation and read what her family has to say about "Blackfish."

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