Political News

Friend Helped Steer EPA Leader’s Agenda Abroad

Posted May 1, 2018 10:42 p.m. EDT
Updated May 1, 2018 10:48 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, allowed a lobbyist friend to play an unusually influential role in setting his agenda during a visit in December to Morocco, according to internal communications related to the scheduling of meetings reviewed by The New York Times.

Just months after helping to organize the trip, the lobbyist, Richard Smotkin, was hired by the government of Morocco as a $40,000-a-month foreign agent, according to filings with the Department of Justice. Smotkin participated in several meetings with Pruitt in Morocco, including with representatives from some industries, according to participants on the trip.

Smotkin had worked as a lobbyist for Comcast when he first came to know Pruitt in Oklahoma, where Pruitt served as attorney general before joining the Trump administration.

Pruitt is facing at least 11 investigations examining his first-class travel, pay raises given to his staff, money spent on security and office furnishings, and frequent trips he took to his home in Oklahoma after he was confirmed, at taxpayer expense.

Members of Congress had questioned whether there was a legitimate government reason for Pruitt to travel to Morocco and also questioned the cost of the trip. Moreover, the swiftness with which Smotkin then received the Morocco contract raises questions about whether the trip helped Smotkin secure the deal.

“It makes it almost look like it was part of a business cultivation effort,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of IssueOne, a nonprofit government ethics group.

Smotkin, who has not publicly disclosed his role in planning the Morocco trip, did not respond to requests for comment. There is no evidence that he has business before the EPA.

Jahan Wilcox, an EPA spokesman, did not dispute that Smotkin participated in the Morocco trip, or some of the meetings that involved Pruitt. But he said that the visit was organized by agency staff members.

“EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs organized and led the effort around Administrator Pruitt’s official meetings with the Moroccan government,” Wilcox said in a statement Tuesday. “Additionally, Mr. Smotkin did not attend or participate in any official meetings with the Moroccan government.”

Pruitt last week faced pointed questions from two congressional oversight committees about his spending and management of the EPA, with some lawmakers demanding additional information about his travel and security spending. Pruitt has often flown on first-class flights, with the airfare alone to Morocco costing more than $16,000.

On Tuesday, two of his top aides, including his head of his security detail, resigned.

Pruitt has also faced questions about why he focused on the trip on promoting liquefied natural gas exports, an issue that is not part of the EPA’s mission. Pruitt testified that the Moroccan ambassador invited him to the country to negotiate the environment portion of a free-trade agreement. He said the ambassador, Lalla Joumala, asked him to raise the issue of liquefied natural gas when he was in Morocco.

In April, Smotkin signed the lobbying contract with the embassy of Morocco to “craft an outreach program” that includes promoting Morocco as a film destination, with the start date of this contract backdated to January. His connection to Pruitt’s Morocco trip was first reported over the weekend in Le Desk, a Moroccan news outlet, and on Tuesday in The Washington Post. During his time in Oklahoma, Pruitt and Smotkin developed a friendship as they repeatedly met up at resort destinations, including at an elite mountainside lodge in Park City, Utah, and the Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for meetings of Republican attorneys general, attendance lists of the events show.

“He has a good relationship with Scott Pruitt,” said Walter Cohen, the former Pennsylvania attorney general, who has also worked as a lawyer for Comcast, and who was present at several of the social and campaign fundraising events. “Some of these meetings we would go out to have dinner with Scott and his wife and Rick and a couple of other people.”

Smotkin told Cohen, among others interviewed by The Times, that he had played a role in helping set up the Morocco trip. Smotkin has been visiting Morocco on behalf of Comcast for several years, working to help promote the northern African nation as a site for film productions for Comcast and its subsidiaries, NBCUniversal and other film companies.

Smotkin organized several of the meetings Pruitt held in Marrakech and Rabat, according to people familiar with the arrangements. Among the meetings was a Dec. 12 discussion with Mostafa Terrab, the chairman of Morocco’s state-owned phosphate mining company, OCP Group, which Smotkin attended. Pruitt during the trip stayed at the luxury Hôtel Sofitel Marrakech, one agency official on the trip said.

The day after the meeting, Smotkin attended a conference sponsored by the OCP Policy Center, a think tank funded by the phosphate giant.

A representative for OCP, which originally stood for Office Chérifien des Phosphates, did not respond to a request for comment.

Maria Bensaid, a spokeswoman for the Moroccan Embassy, said in a statement that the embassy issued the invitation to Pruitt “to further our partnership and deepen certain sectors of cooperation.” She said all working visits there were organized through official diplomatic channels. Smotkin was among the Comcast executives who made a contribution in 2013 to Pruitt as he prepared to run for a second term as attorney general. During Pruitt’s tenure in Oklahoma, Smotkin joined with other movie industry executives to reach out to Pruitt’s office, emails show, to seek help in urging an investigation into Google, which NBCUniversal and other companies believed was not doing enough to combat the illegal distribution of bootlegged films on the internet.

Smotkin, who had been listed as a lobbyist contact on behalf of Comcast in Canada, had also played a role in setting up a March 2017 meeting between Pruitt and Stephen J. Harper, the former prime minister of Canada, who, like Pruitt, is a known climate change skeptic.

A spokeswoman for Comcast said that Smotkin left the company in July and that Comcast was not involved in the Morocco trip.

On Pruitt’s other foreign trip as EPA administrator — to Italy in June — he also granted unusual access to a friend, Leonard A. Leo, who heads a conservative judicial group, the Federalist Society, according to three people involved in that trip. Leo was involved in some aspects of planning the trip and also joined Pruitt during a visit to the Vatican for a private Mass.

Two people involved in the travel arrangements said Leo’s involvement was unusual because outside personnel do not typically help plan international trips for EPA administrators and because his name was not listed on any publicly released documents.

Like Smotkin, Leo has enjoyed privileged status at the EPA, according to a former agency official, who said that requests made by them were treated as a priority. If either called Pruitt’s office “and asked for something, we did it, it doesn’t matter what it was,” said the former official, who requested anonymity for fear of running afoul of Leo, who is powerful among conservatives in Washington.

The relationship between Leo and Pruitt stems from their involvement in conservative legal fights at the state level.

In Oklahoma, Pruitt led the way in legal challenges brought by Republican-led states to Obama administration policies. He also was active in nonprofit groups that sought to spur such fights, including the Republican Attorneys General Association and the Rule of Law Defense Fund. Pruitt helped create the Rule of Law Defense Fund to assist conservatives who then were using the federal court system to try to block President Barack Obama’s environmental efforts, such as the Clean Power Plan.

Leo, email records from Pruitt’s Oklahoma office show, joined with Pruitt to help coordinate some of these efforts, and to raise money for them. For example, in 2013, Devon Energy, an Oklahoma-based oil and gas company that had close ties to Pruitt, organized a meeting between Pruitt, Leo and a coal industry lawyer, Paul M. Seby, to create a “clearinghouse” that would be named the Center for Energy Independence and “assist AGs in addressing federalism issues,” referring to state attorneys general, emails obtained from Pruitt’s Oklahoma office show.

Pruitt’s chief of staff at the time emailed Devon Energy, saying that “this will be an amazing resource for the AGs and for industry.”

Leo was a director of a nonprofit group called the Rule of Law Project that donated $145,000 to the Rule of Law Defense Fund in 2014.

Leo, at the time Pruitt served as attorney general, also helped introduce Pruitt to other key conservatives in Washington, including inviting Pruitt to a private dinner that included the Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, Pruitt said in a speech he gave in 2016.

Leo — an observant Catholic who has played a major role in recommending anti-abortion, anti-regulation judicial nominees for President Donald Trump — accompanied Pruitt to a private Mass at the Vatican that Leo helped arrange, according to agency officials who traveled to Rome with Pruitt. “He was driving most of the schedule,” one former EPA official said of Leo.

Leo also joined Pruitt and his top aides at a top restaurant in Rome, where the bill for the meal totaled several hundred dollars per participant, according to one of the officials. The official said that Leo traveled with Pruitt in his motorcade to the Vatican and to the restaurant over the objections of Pruitt’s aides, according to the official.

Since becoming EPA administrator, Pruitt has attended events held by the Federalist Society, where he is regarded as the deregulatory champion of the moment. Major donors to the Federalist Society include the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, David H. Koch, Koch Industries and the Chevron Corp.

Government ethics officials said that at a minimum, Pruitt’s calendar — an official government document that has been released after Freedom of Information requests by The Times — should have included details related to the role that Leo and Smotkin played in these trips, or their presence as part of the delegation. Neither is mentioned.

“With transparency comes accountability,” said McGehee of IssueOne, the nonprofit government ethics group.