MARRAKESH, Morocco – A controversial trip to Morocco by Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt last December was partly arranged by a longtime friend and lobbyist, who accompanied Pruitt and his entourage at multiple stops and served as an informal liaison at both official and social events during the visit.
Richard Smotkin, a former Comcast lobbyist who has known the EPA administrator for years, worked for months with Pruitt’s aides to hammer out logistics, according to four individuals familiar with those preparations. In April, Smotkin won a $40,000-a-month contract, retroactive to Jan. 1, with the Moroccan government to promote the kingdom’s cultural and economic interests. He recently registered as a foreign agent representing that government.
The four-day journey has drawn scrutiny from lawmakers and the EPA inspector general, who is investigating its high costs and whether it adhered to the agency’s mission to “protect human health and the environment.”
Information obtained by the Washington Post shows the visit’s cost exceeded $100,000, more than twice what has been previously reported — including $16,217 for Pruitt’s Delta airfare and $494 to spend one night at a luxury hotel in Paris. He was accompanied by eight staffers and his round-the-clock security detail.
Smotkin’s role in arranging the visit was highly unusual, ethics experts say, and raises many questions. Federal laws prohibit public officials from using government resources to financially benefit friends, relatives or other people with whom they have personal connections.
Smotkin did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Pruitt faces multiple inquiries about his spending, ethics and management decisions. The Morocco trip has drawn special scrutiny for its expense and purpose.
For months, many details about the journey have remained shrouded in secrecy, particularly the highly unusual role of Smotkin. These previously unreported details underscore lawmakers’ questions about whether the trip was in keeping with Pruitt’s role as the nation’s top environmental official.
The EPA has insisted that the trip was a legitimate effort to nail down details of a bilateral trade agreement, and the agency said Monday that Pruitt was unaware of the depth of Smotkin’s business relationship with the Moroccan government.
Ethics experts note that it is highly unusual for someone outside the U.S. government to help arrange such travel details for the head of a federal agency. Larry Noble, senior director and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said Tuesday that the lobbyist’s involvement raises issues about whether Pruitt went to Morocco partly to bolster Smotkin’s standing within the kingdom.
“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,” Noble said.
Even as some aspects of the trip remain unclear, EPA officials confirmed that Smotkin brokered Pruitt’s initial meeting with Morocco’s ambassador in Washington, when she extended an invitation to travel to her country. Smotkin also accompanied Pruitt at multiple stops during his visit, the EPA and others confirmed.
Unlike most Cabinet-level travel, for which the agenda and policy outcomes are finalized weeks in advance, Pruitt’s office changed the schedule even while he was there, according to several individuals familiar with the visit. Though the EPA chief did visit a solar power research installation, he canceled a public appearance with an energy efficiency expert at an international conference in Marrakech and instead met with the chairman of a massive phosphate exporter.
The reasons behind the trip came up again last week in Washington when Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, grilled Pruitt during the second of two contentious House hearings. She pressed him on why the EPA trumpeted the fact that part of his time was spent promoting the benefits of U.S. liquefied natural gas imports on Morocco’s economy.
“I can’t, for the life of me, imagine why an EPA administrator would be over there promoting energy sales,” Pingree said. “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.”
“There’s a free-trade agreement,” Pruitt replied. “The ambassador of Morocco actually met with me in advance of a free-trade agreement that was being negotiated and being completed in February of this year. We were there in December to negotiate the environmental chapter. That was the focus of the trip.”