Political News

Onetime Lobbyist for Foreign Governments Helped Plan a Pruitt Trip to Australia

Posted May 2, 2018 8:15 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — A Washington consultant who was removed from President Donald Trump’s transition team for using his business email address for government work played a central role last year in planning a trip to Australia for Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and then took steps to disguise his role, new documents show.

The consultant, Matthew C. Freedman, who is also a former lobbyist for foreign governments, runs his own corporate advisory firm and is treasurer of the American Australian Council, a group that helps promote business for U.S.-based companies in Australia. Two prominent members include Chevron and ConocoPhillips.

Though the Australia trip never happened — it was canceled after Hurricane Harvey devastated much of the Texas Gulf Coast — it shows a pattern in which Pruitt has repeatedly relied on people with clear business interests to shape the agenda of his foreign travel. Separately last year, a trip to Morocco was organized by a lobbyist who later was hired by Morocco as a $40,000-a-month foreign agent to represent its interests abroad.

Freedman has spent decades as an international political consultant and lobbyist, starting in the 1980s as an employee of Paul Manafort when the two men worked together to help the embattled Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Manafort later became Trump’s campaign chairman, and many of his former lobbying associates entered Trump’s orbit, with some remaining in influential positions well after Manafort resigned from the campaign amid scrutiny of his work for Russia-aligned Ukrainian politicians. Manafort has since been indicted on charges related to that work by the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Freedman worked on Trump’s transition team in late 2016 on national security-related issues. He was removed after conducting government business using an email address associated with his consulting firm, Global Impact Inc., which fed the impression that he was using his position with the transition team to drum up business, according to an adviser to the transition.

More recently, Freedman has been working with Trump’s new national security adviser, John R. Bolton, as an outside adviser, according to two people familiar with the arrangement. They said that Freedman is under consideration to become a special government employee for the National Security Council under Bolton’s leadership, a position that would allow him to maintain his outside consulting business while working for the federal government.

Freedman declined to comment. A statement he provided to The New York Times from the American Australian Council said that the group had authorized him to have discussions with the EPA about the possible trip to Australia, “to further the mission” of the organization.

Pruitt still has the support of Trump, a top White House official said Tuesday, despite the fact that Pruitt faces 11 investigations into his spending and management practices at the EPA.

Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for Pruitt, said the agency’s staff was in charge of planning the Australia trip and Freedman’s involvement began in mid-2017.

However, emails released recently under the Freedom of Information Act to the Sierra Club, which sued to obtain the documents, appear to contradict that. The emails indicate Freedman was involved in early March, just weeks after Pruitt was confirmed as the EPA chief, in coming up with reasons to justify a trip by Pruitt to Australia.

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who has been critical of Pruitt’s spending, said the emails help to document allegations raised by Pruitt’s former chief of staff, Kevin Chmielewski, who had questioned Pruitt’s travel spending before being pushed out of the agency earlier this year.

“Pruitt’s trips began with Pruitt ordering staff to ‘find me something to do’ to justify his expensive travel,” Beyer said, quoting Chmielewski. Beyer said that the emails “also reveal that lobbyists for energy companies and foreign governments acted as travel agents.”

The Australian embassy said in a statement that it was unaware that Freedman had been working to arrange the trip, and that neither Freedman nor his company “has been engaged to represent Australia.” The embassy added that the American Australian Council, for which Freedman serves as treasurer, “is an independent organization that does not represent the Australian government.”

Freedman frequently discussed the possible Australia trip with another lobbyist, Richard Smotkin, who has long-standing ties to Pruitt. Smotkin also helped organize Pruitt’s December trip to Morocco, and then four months later signed the $40,000-a-month contract to represent an arm of the government of that North African country.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement, “It’s no wonder these emails had to be forced out by a court: They expose the fact that corporate lobbyists are orchestrating Pruitt’s taxpayer-funded trips to push their dangerous agendas.”

The emails with Freedman were among a collection of 6,337 pages of correspondence between corporate representatives and top political appointees at the EPA. Most were sent to Millan Hupp, a top political aide to Pruitt. Hupp also worked with Pruitt as a political assistant when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general.

Hupp served as a gatekeeper for Pruitt with companies and organizations interested in getting on his calendar or inviting him to an event, the emails indicate. Those companies have included the coal producer Peabody Energy and Koch Industries, the conglomerate controlled by the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, as well as dozens of others, with a particular emphasis on fossil-fuel-related firms and chemical industry and agriculture groups such as the American Farm Bureau.

Freedman is not registered as a lobbyist for the government of Australia, nor is he currently registered to lobby on behalf of any foreign or domestic clients in the United States, according to records on file with Congress and the Department of Justice. They show that a now-inactive firm he had formed with Manafort was last registered to lobby in the late 1990s, when it represented the government of Nigeria and the Argentine politician Alberto Pierri.

Freedman’s associates say he continues to advise international clients in various capacities that do not trigger lobbying disclosure requirements. In the emails, Freedman offered Hupp a series of suggestions as to whom Pruitt could meet with on the trip to Australia. Freedman said he had already been talking to top government officials there to get the planning started.

“I’ve been in direct contact with the Minister in Aus, and we will be speaking with his senior staffer (Cosi) who is the lead from their side on Monday night,” Freedman wrote to Hupp in late June, as the planning for the trip got underway. “Also, Jim Carouso, the Charge at the US Emb in Canberra is a close personal friend and would likely have good inputs, but I want to wait a bit before i contact him.”

In a separate email, he suggested Pruitt meet with top Australian officials including Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. And he went on to suggest topics that could be discussed at the meeting, including “the current US Australian environmental agreements that are currently in place and whether they should be changed or updated or canceled or replaced.”

Freedman placed a condition on the assistance he was providing: His involvement should not be disclosed. “Rick and I will be present but not listed as members of the delegation,” Freedman wrote, referring to Smotkin.

Hupp’s input in these email exchanges was short, with notes back to Freedman like “Sounds good. We will plan for Monday morning,” in response to a request in July from Freedman to discuss the Australia trip.

The exchanges showed an awareness that traveling to Australia would have its complexities, given that Pruitt is a climate change skeptic.

“There are challenges to a visit,” Freedman wrote in one March 2017 memo, as the debate over the trip first started. “It would highlight the Australian Government aggressive support for policies that may not be in sync with the Trump Administration, and the strong financial role played by the Australian Government in protecting the environment.”

Later, on July 18, Freedman wrote to Hupp to say that Pruitt should be prepared for a “confused and angry group of Aussies” who were likely to disagree with Trump’s policies.

On climate change specifically, Freedman wrote that he had been in touch with the executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs, an Australian think tank that he described as being “aligned with the Trump vision on various issues” including coal and deregulation. Freedman said he planned to suggest more people Pruitt should meet through that organization.

The emails released to the Sierra Club also provide further documentation of the role that Smotkin played in setting up Pruitt’s December visit to Morocco. Hupp turned to Smotkin in September to set up a meeting with the Moroccan ambassador to the United States.

“Would you be so kind as to pass along these three dates as potential for a meeting with the Moroccan Minister?” Hupp wrote to Smotkin. He agreed to do so, and wrote back to correct the title: “Will do. It is the ambassador.”

Though the trip to Australia was ultimately canceled, vouchers previously released by the EPA show that two aides and three security officials spent about $45,000 traveling there to set up meetings and prepare for Pruitt’s arrival.