U.S. Energy Department official Samuel Otis Brinton has been heralded by the Biden administration and some media outlets for being one of the first openly “gender-fluid” individuals to serve in a top federal position. 

Brinton, the deputy assistant Energy Department secretary for the Office of Spent Fuel and Waste Disposition, faces criminal charges of stealing luggage from a Minnesota airport in September. He is on temporary leave from the Energy Department.

Until now, Brinton, 35, probably was best known to Americans for social media posts and other photographs in which he poses in women’s clothes and makeup. 

Here’s what to know about Brinton and the criminal case. 

1. What Are Charges and Maximum Penalty?

On Oct. 27, prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Brinton in Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis, accusing him of stealing a piece of luggage from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport. Brinton’s court date is set for Dec. 19. 

The complaint states that the woman who reported her Vera Bradley suitcase as missing has yet to recover the bag and its contents. 

Airport police learned that no clothing was recovered from Brinton’s room at the InterContinental Saint Paul Riverfront hotel, despite Brinton’s saying he left behind clothing from the bag in the Minnesota hotel. 

Brinton is charged under Minnesota law with felony theft involving taking, using, or transporting movable property without consent. 

If convicted of the felony charge, he faces up to five years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both. 

2. What Did Energy Department Do About It?

Brinton, who prefers the personal pronouns they, them, and theirs, is the chief federal official overseeing nuclear waste as the Energy Department’s assistant deputy secretary in charge of the Office of Spent Fuel and Waste Disposition.

A resident of Rockville, Maryland, he began working at the Energy Department job in June with an annual salary of  $178,063. He has so-called Q Sensitive clearance, the agency’s equivalent of top secret clearance, according to The National Pulse. 

Brinton tweeted June 29 about sharing the stage with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who was appointed by President Joe Biden, for a Pride Month celebration. 

On Tuesday, an Energy Department spokesperson told The Daily Signal in an email: “Sam Brinton is on leave from DOE, and Dr. Kim Petry is performing the duties of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Spent Fuel and Waste Disposition.”

The spokesperson didn’t say how long the leave had been in effect, nor whether the leave is paid or unpaid.

The trade publication Exchange Monitor reported Nov. 23 that Petry had been asked to “stay on” during Brinton’s absence as acting deputy assistant secretary. She would do so “for the foreseeable future,” Petry wrote in an email to colleagues late the week before, the publication reported.

Brinton’s most recent tweet related to the Energy Department was Oct. 23, just four days before the formal charges were filed against him.

The New York Post reported Monday that the Energy Department placed Brinton on leave about a month after the Sept. 16 incident at the airport in Minnesota. 

Fox News reported Monday that Brinton was charged shortly before taking a leave of absence.  

The Energy Department spokesperson also would not answer questions about the status of Brinton’s security clearance, whether he would return to the department, and whether the charge against him has been reviewed by the department’s Office of the Assistant General Counsel for Ethics and Personnel Law.

Brinton’s security clearance is equivalent to what the government calls “Critical-Sensitive (CS)/High Risk.” 

The Office of Personnel Management says of this category: “Potential exists to bring about a material adverse effect on the national security, causing exceptionally grave damage. Any position receiving a position sensitivity designation of CS shall automatically carry with that designation, without further agency action, a High Risk designation.”

Though a high-ranking official in the Biden administration, Brinton was not a presidential appointee. 

According to his Energy Department biography page, Brinton “manages ongoing research and development related to long-term disposition of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.”

3. What Is Brinton’s Background?

The Energy Department’s bio of Brinton also notes that he had prior experience in nuclear waste management. He worked on the issue with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist think tank; Breakthrough Institute, an environmental group that supports nuclear energy; the Clean Air Task Force, another environmental organization; and Third Way, a think tank associated with President Bill Clinton and other center-left New Democrats of the 1990s.  

Brinton holds dual graduate degrees in nuclear science and engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Brinton’s Energy Department bio, referring to him as ”they,” goes on to say:

Sam is also a well-known advocate for LGBTQ youth and helped to secure protections against the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy in more than half of the country. They identify as gender-fluid and use the pronouns they, them, and theirs.

Brinton’s net worth is about $1 million, according to PopularNetworth.com.  

4. What Did Brinton Allegedly Do? 

On Sept. 16, a female traveler alerted the Airport Police Department at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport that she was missing a piece of luggage.

Law enforcement officers who reviewed surveillance footage that same day saw Brinton remove a navy blue, hard-sided, 26-inch roller bag made by Vera Bradley from Carousel 7, according to the criminal complaint filed in Hennepin County District Court.  

The victim confirmed, through a digital still of surveillance footage, that it was her bag with total contents worth $2,325, according to the complaint. 

The same style of Vera Bradley luggage sells for $295 from VeraBradley.com. 

Law enforcement confirmed that Brinton arrived at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport at 4:27 p.m. Sept. 16 on a flight from Washington, D.C., and had not checked a bag when he departed Washington.

Law enforcement learned that Brinton stayed at the InterContinental Saint Paul Riverfront hotel, and video surveillance from that hotel showed Brinton checking in with a bag that fit the description of the stolen luggage.

Energy Department officials haven’t released details regarding the purpose of Brinton’s trip, but it’s possible he was in Minnesota regarding developments at Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant. 

Bloom Energy announced Sept. 19 that it was working on a demonstration project with Xcel Energy’s nuclear power plant to produce hydrogen. Funding for the project is included in congressional Democrats’ infrastructure spending bill and the Inflation Reduction Act.  

In January, Xcel had sought permission from state and federal regulators to use a different type of storage cask for its nuclear waste. 

5. How Did Brinton Change His Story?

On Sept. 18, Brinton departed the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport, where video surveillance recorded him checking the blue Vera Bradley luggage for a return flight to Washington. 

Weeks later, on Oct. 9, Brinton was spotted with the Vera Bradley roller suitcase on surveillance footage at Dulles International Airport, just outside the nation’s capital, as he returned from Europe, according to the complaint.  

The Energy Department official’s travel destination in Europe isn’t clear, but it’s possible that Brinton attended an American Society of Mechanical Engineers conference on environmental remediation and radioactive waste management held Oct. 4 to 6 in Stuttgart, Germany. 

The woman whose luggage was stolen was shown a photo of the suitcase taken from Washington Dulles Airport surveillance footage. She confirmed to police at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport that it was her suitcase, according to court documents. 

Investigators called Brinton on Oct. 9 and asked him whether he took anything from the Minneapolis airport that didn’t belong to him. 

“Not that I know of,” Brinton replied, according to the complaint. 

Brinton later admitted to taking the wrong bag, but said that he didn’t have the clothes and other contents that the woman said were in the suitcase. 

“That was my clothes when I opened the bag,” the Energy Department official said, according to the complaint.

Brinton confirmed that he still had the bag. 

Two hours later, Brinton called investigators and apologized for not being “completely honest.” He admitted to taking the Vera Bradley bag and said he was tired at the time and thought it was his. 

Brinton told investigators that when he opened the bag and realized it wasn’t his, he got nervous and didn’t know what to do, according to the complaint. 

So, Brinton said, he left the clothes from the bag inside drawers in his Saint Paul hotel room. He admitted to checking the bag at the airport Sept. 18 for his return flight to Washington. 

When asked why he took the bag with him Sept. 18, Brinton said it would be “weirder” to leave a bag in the hotel room than the clothes, according to the complaint. 

On Oct. 9,  investigators told Brinton how to return the bag to Delta Air Lines at Reagan National Airport to ensure that it got back to the woman who reported it missing, the complaint says. 

6. How Has Media Covered Brinton?

Much of the media coverage so far has betrayed a blissful unawareness of Brinton’s alleged crime. 

On Nov. 3, which was likely after the Energy Department placed Brinton on a leave of absence, NBC News reported that a conservative group had named Brinton in what it called “anti-trans misinformation” before the Nov. 8 midterm elections. 

Yahoo News ran a positive feature story on Brinton on Oct. 26, one day before the formal criminal charges were filed against him. 

In the article, Brinton is quoted as saying:

I can’t change my identity more than anyone can change intrinsic parts about themselves, but I can change my openness. And so I am given the opportunity to serve my country as I am, and that’s a really important aspect of my work—because I work on nuclear waste management, where transparency and honesty and trust building are so critical. So if I can’t be myself, it’s really hard to build those relationships. I’m proud to say that, yes, I get to be the first openly gender-fluid person in this type of government service, but I won’t be the last.

The Yahoo News article explained that Brinton, having gone through “conversion therapy,” a technique used for children who identify as gay, became an activist to have the practice banned, the article said. 

E&E News, a trade publication owned by Politico that covers energy and the environment, ran a mostly positive story about Brinton on Oct. 13, which was before he was charged but after the theft investigation had begun.

“Beyond the work, Brinton—who uses they/them pronouns—is one of the first openly gender-fluid individuals in federal government leadership,” E&E News wrote. 

The Daily Signal sought comment from NBC News, Yahoo News, and E&E News on whether they were aware of the investigation at the time they published their stories on Brinton, and whether they planned to update the stories. 

NBC News and Yahoo did not respond by publication time. 

E&E News, however, published an updated piece Tuesday about the charges against Brinton.

Ken McIntyre contributed to this report.

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