Mystery of Pruitt's Morocco Trip Deepens With Lobbyist Contract

(Bloomberg) -- EPA Chief Scott Pruitt’s four-day trip to Morocco last December was puzzling from the start.

Environmental Protection Agency officials didn’t tell reporters about the excursion until after Pruitt had returned. And their initial explanation -- that Pruitt was touting the benefits of U.S. liquefied natural gas -- raised questions because the issue falls outside the EPA’s jurisdiction.

Now, Democrats are demanding more details about the role of a lobbyist in planning Pruitt’s jaunt to Morocco. The lobbyist, Richard Smotkin, accompanied Pruitt for part of the trip, helped facilitate meetings during it and, four months later, won a $40,000-a-month contract with the Moroccan government.

“Administrator Pruitt needs to explain this trip,” Democratic Senators Tom Carper of Delaware and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said in a joint news release.

“We thought boosting an industry he is not even charged with regulating -– a mission well outside the scope of his job -– was troubling enough,” the senators said. “Now, after our repeated questions have gone ignored, we learn this trip was also the work of a lobbyist and personal friend of Pruitt’s now representing the Moroccan government.”

EPA officials have defended Pruitt’s trip, calling it an appropriate effort to negotiate environmental provisions in a bilateral trade agreement with Morocco. EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said Pruitt was not aware Smotkin was considering taking on a formal role representing the country.

Pruitt told a House committee last week that the ambassador of Morocco invited him to negotiate the environmental chapter of the free-trade pact. That is “very important” to the duties of the EPA, Pruitt said. Pruitt also told lawmakers that the attention to LNG was “only because the ambassador asked me to share that” with people while in Morocco.

The intensifying scrutiny of Pruitt’s jaunt to Morocco comes as the administrator faces criticism for frequent travel to his home state of Oklahoma, questionable spending decisions at the EPA, raises for two top aides over White House objections and allegations that some employees were sidelined after questioning his decisions. Critics also have pounced on Pruitt’s decision to rent a bedroom on Capitol Hill from a lobbyist whose husband had clients with matters pending before the agency.

Smotkin played a key role in shaping Pruitt’s Morocco trip, including hastily scheduled events during the journey. The lobbyist also helped arrange an Oct. 25 meeting between Pruitt and the Moroccan ambassador, Princess Lalla Joumala Alaoui, during which the administrator said he was asked to visit the country for trade negotiations. But some arrangements were being made even before that Oct. 25 meeting, according to the Washington Post, which reported previously on Smotkin’s role.

In April, Smotkin registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent representing Morocco through his lobbying firm ThirdCircle Inc. According to an April 4 contract, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018, Smotkin’s company would be paid $40,000 monthly for at least a year, to tout Morocco as a film destination and “a world-class golf destination.” The work was to include bringing U.S. film and television producers to Morocco and doing the same with golf enthusiasts, so they could “experience the majestic golf courses that span the country.”

Smotkin and Pruitt have known each other for years, going back to the EPA chief’s time as Oklahoma attorney general. Smotkin was a senior vice president of government affairs for Comcast Corp. through last July and the pair frequently interacted as part of Pruitt’s previous chairmanship of the Republican Attorneys General Association. On Feb. 27 last year -- just 10 days after Pruitt had been sworn in -- the two men met for an early dinner in Washington, according to schedules released by the agency.

Although Smotkin joined Pruitt on at least two meetings in Morocco -- and dined with the administrator at least once during the trip -- he “did not attend or participate in any official meetings with the Moroccan government,” Wilcox said.

Pruitt was accompanied by eight EPA staff members during the trip to Morocco, which included at least eight official events, according to the administrator’s schedule. His itinerary included a visit with Mostafa Terrab, the chairman of Moroccan state-owned phosphate mining company OCP SA, and a tour of the Green Energy Park north of Marrakech designed to promote the development of renewable energy. Pruitt also visited with the CEO of the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy and dined with Moroccan government officials.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has already asked for documents and information about Pruitt’s travel to Morocco. And the EPA’s inspector general is auditing all of Pruitt’s travel last year.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.