New details regarding EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s trip to Morocco reveal a lobbyist and close friend partially orchestrated the visit, drawing more controversy around Pruitt’s leadership of the agency.
Pruitt’s December trip to Morocco involved the assistance of Richard Smotkin, a former Comcast lobbyist and a longtime friend of Pruitt’s. Smotkin worked with the EPA for months leading up to the four-day international trip, according to sources who spoke with The Washington Post. The former lobbyist reportedly also served as an informal liaison during the trip, partaking in several social and official events.
More notably, Smotkin secured a $40,000-a-month contract with the Moroccan government to promote the country’s cultural and economic interests only months after attending the trip. Smotkin — who recently registered as a foreign agent — won the deal in April, but the contract was backdated to the beginning of January.
“It shows, at the very least, a tremendous amount of sloppiness, and it raises ethical issues about the relationship between Smotkin and Pruitt,” Larry Noble, a senior director and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said on Tuesday. “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 and Smotkin developed a friendship when Pruitt served as Oklahoma’s attorney general. Attendance lists reveal the two men spent time together at resort destinations during gatherings of GOP attorneys general, according to The New York Times.
“He has a good relationship with Scott Pruitt,” said Walter Cohen, a former Pennsylvania attorney general and a person familiar with the relationship, on Tuesday. “Some of these meetings we would go out to have dinner with Scott and his wife and Rick and a couple of other people.”
The purpose of the visit is also being called into question. As the leader of the EPA, Pruitt’s attendance on official trips is meant to bolster the agency’s goal of protecting “human health and the environment.” Pruitt is receiving criticism for taking out time to promote the economic benefits of U.S. liquefied natural gas imports.
“I can’t, for the life of me, imagine why an EPA administrator would be over there promoting energy sales,” said Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine during a Congressional hearing on Thursday where Pruitt faced tough questioning. “We have a Department of Energy. You should be thinking much more about some of the challenges with [liquefied natural gas], and why you would be on the other side.”
The agency, in response, has repeatedly contended that the Moroccan visit was an effort to secure a bilateral trade agreement.
The entire trip cost the EPA over $100,000 — more than double of what was originally reported. Expenses included $16,217 for Pruitt’s airfare, $494 for his one-night stay at a swanky hotel in Paris and 24/7 security provided by eight different staffers.
Emerging details about the Moroccan trip are just the latest in what has been a compiling list of negative headlines for Pruitt. The beleaguered EPA chief is facing at least 11 investigations involving his first-class air travel, money spent on security and office furnishings, questionable pay raises to staffers and numerous trips to his home state of Oklahoma on the taxpayers’ dime.
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