Lobbyists and a well-connected GOP political backer played outsized roles in shaping Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt’s travel plans, according to new reports.
Pruitt, already the target of multiple investigations for lavish spending and possible ethics violations, relied on the same lobbyist who helped plan a controversial trip to Morocco in December to arrange details of travel to Australia earlier last year, CNN reported on Thursday. Additionally, Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate and GOP backer, played a major role in helping shape Pruitt’s planned trip to Israel in February, The Washington Post reported.
It’s very unusual for a person outside government to arrange travel plans for a Cabinet official, ethics experts have noted, and some critics have questioned whether Pruitt violated federal law by recruiting lobbyists and friends for this role. Public officials are prohibited from using their position to financially benefit friends.
The Post reported that Pruitt had been enlisting “well-connected friends and political allies” to help plan overseas travel since he took office. “Pruitt drew up a list of at least a dozen countries he hoped to visit and urged aides to help him find official reasons to travel,” the paper added.
Reports earlier this week revealed that Pruitt relied heavily on a longtime friend and former Comcast lobbyist, Richard Smotkin, to help plan his expensive trip to Morocco. Smotkin reportedly was hired as a lobbyist by the Moroccan government shortly after Pruitt’s visit, raising questions about whether the embattled EPA chief’s trip served to benefit Smotkin financially.
Smotkin also was involved in Pruitt planned trip to Australia last year, according to CNN. The lobbyist played a “critical” role in connecting the EPA head to Matthew Freedman, treasurer of the business lobby group the American Australian Council, and intended to travel to Australia with Pruitt, according to the report.
Freedman reportedly also was involved in planning the Australia trip and conferred with Pruitt’s staff to arrange the EPA chief’s schedule and talking points. Freedman suggested to Pruitt’s aides that the Institute of Public Affairs, a climate skeptic think tank, serve as co-host of Pruitt’s visit, reported The Guardian this week, citing emails recently released to the Sierra Club under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Australia visit, which had been slated to take place around September 2017, was eventually canceled. The EPA said at the time that Hurricane Harvey had derailed Pruitt’s travel schedule.
The planned trip to Israel in February was canceled days before the EPA head was scheduled to leave, after news broke that Pruitt’s first-class travel had cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.
An Adelson associate reportedly met with two Pruitt aides to discuss the Israel itinerary in the days leading up to Pruitt’s departure. Adelson was said to have helped connect Pruitt with Water-Gen, an Israeli water purification company that makes products the EPA recently agreed to test.
On Thursday, Democratic lawmakers wrote to the EPA administrator calling for more details about “the role Mr. Adelson or other non-governmental officials played” in the agreement with Water-Gen and the planned trip to Israel.
The New York Times reported Thursday that Pruitt secretly purchased a home with a lobbyist when he was a state senator in Oklahoma. The lobbyist at the time was pushing changes in workers’ compensation rules that Pruitt championed in the legislature, according to the report.
Amid the storm of scandals, three of Pruitt’s top aides ― his top spokeswoman, a top aide on toxic cleanups and the head of his security detail ― abruptly resigned this week.