Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt’s costly visit to Morocco last year was partly planned by a lobbyist friend, according to news reports.
The disclosure raises fresh questions about the purpose of Pruitt’s controversial visit, which reportedly cost taxpayers more than $100,000. Some also question whether the lobbyist, reportedly hired soon after the trip by the Moroccan government to promote the country’s “cultural and economic interests,” benefited financially from his relationship to the embattled EPA chief.
The New York Times and The Washington Post separately reported that Richard Smotkin, a former Comcast lobbyist who has known Pruitt for many years, helped to plan the EPA administrator’s trip to Morocco in December. Both papers published articles online Tuesday night and in Wednesday’s print editions.
The EPA confirmed that Smotkin facilitated an initial meeting in October between Pruitt and Morocco’s ambassador to the U.S., reported the Post. It was at that meeting that the ambassador, Lalla Joumala, invited Pruitt to visit Morocco.
Smotkin reportedly then helped organize several meetings for Pruitt in the country, including one with OCP Group, a state-owned phosphate mining company. Smotkin was a “near-constant presence” during Pruitt’s trip, the Post reported, serving as “an informal liaison at both official and social events.”
The EPA did not deny that Smotkin had attended some of Pruitt’s meetings in Morocco, but downplayed the role that the lobbyist played in orchestrating the visit.
“EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs organized and led the effort around Administrator Pruitt’s official meetings with the Moroccan government,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement Tuesday, according to the Times. “Additionally, Mr. Smotkin did not attend or participate in any official meetings with the Moroccan government.”
Still, concerns have been raised about Smotkin’s involvement in the trip, with the two reports pointing out how unusual it is for a person outside government to arrange travel plans for a Cabinet official.
The Times noted that Pruitt has done this at least once before since becoming the head of the EPA. Pruitt reportedly recruited another friend, Leonard Leo, head of the Federalist Society, to help him plan his trip to Italy last June.
Smotkin’s close ties to the Moroccan government, which date back to at least 2016, are also raising questions.
Smotkin recently signed a $40,000-a-month lobbying contract with the Moroccan government to “craft an outreach program” that includes helping to promote the country as a film and “world-class golf” destination. Documents filed with the Department of Justice in April show that Smotkin’s work with the Moroccan government began Jan. 1 ― just weeks after Pruitt’s visit.
Larry Noble, senior director at the Campaign Legal Center, told the Post that Smotkin’s role in Pruitt’s trip raises questions about whether the visit helped the lobbyist get his new job with the Moroccan government. Public officials are prohibited under federal law from using their position to financially benefit their friends and relatives.
“It shows, at the very least, a tremendous amount of sloppiness, and it raises ethical issues about the relationship between Smotkin and Pruitt,” Noble said. “If Pruitt did this to benefit Smotkin and did this to show that Smotkin has an in with the EPA administrator, then he’s using his official office to benefit a private person.”
Pruitt’s Morocco trip had already been drawing criticism and scrutiny from lawmakers and others. Last week, members of two congressional oversight committees quizzed Pruitt on choices he’d made as the head of the EPA, including the purpose of the Morocco visit and why he’d spent part of his time in the country promoting U.S. liquefied natural gas.
“I can’t, for the life of me, imagine why an EPA administrator would be over there promoting energy sales,” Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee, said to Pruitt on Thursday.
The high cost of the four-day trip has also attracted scrutiny. (The Post reported on Tuesday that the visit cost more than $100,000 ― more than double what had previously been reported.)
Pruitt has defended the trip as being part of an effort to negotiate the environmental chapter of a new bilateral trade agreement between Morocco and the United States. As for his promotion of liquefied natural gas, he told lawmakers last week that he’d only done that because the Moroccan ambassador had asked him to discuss the topic while he was in the country.
Pruitt is currently facing at least 11 federal investigations into his spending habits and other potential ethics issues, including a $50-a-night condo he rented from the wife of an energy lobbyist and money he’s spent on security and lavish office furnishings.
On Tuesday, two of Pruitt’s top aides, including the head of his security detail, abruptly resigned.
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