Scott Pruitt, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has managed to hold a consistent spot in the news headlines for the last few weeks, where he’s primarily known for his successful efforts to dismantle Obama-era protections on the environment (for Pruitt, MAGA stands for “make asthma great again”) on behalf of his donors in the oil and gas industry.
He’s just as notorious for his excessive use of taxpayer dollars to satisfy his own selfish desires, and a new report from The Washington Post reveals just how shameless he’s willing to be when it comes to pampering himself.
It has been known since December that Pruitt took part in a controversial trip to Morocco, a trip currently under investigation by the EPA’s inspector general for its high costs and whether it had anything to do with the agency’s mission to “protect human health and the environment.”
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Richard Smotkin, a former Comcast lobbyist who has known the EPA administrator for years, reportedly worked for months with Pruitt’s aides to plan the lavish trip, a report corroborated by four individuals familiar with the preparations.
The Washington Post obtained information showing the cost of the visit exceeded $100,000, a sum over double what had previously been reported. The whopping price tag included $16,217 for Pruitt’s first-class Delta airfare and a luxurious night in a Paris hotel which cost taxpayers $494.
He was accompanied by eight staffers, round-the-clock security detail, and Smotkin himself, who escorted Pruitt and his entourage at multiple stops and served as an informal liaison at both official and social events during the visit.
Just last month, Smotkin won a $40,000-a-month contract, retroactive to January 1, with the Moroccan government. The contract binds the lobbyist to promote the kingdom’s cultural and economic interests, forcing him to register as a foreign agent representing that government.
The retroactively-applied contract, as well as the exorbitant price tag for the trip itself, has caused considerable concern amongst ethics experts. Specifically, federal laws prohibit public officials from using government resources to financially benefit friends, relatives, or personal connections.
According to The Washington Post, Smotkin ignored calls and emails seeking comment about the trip or his personal connections to Pruitt.
The EPA continues to downplay Pruitt’s role in these major financial decisions, often placing blame for excessive expenditures in the hands of “career politicians,” utilizing the Trumpian desire to “drain the swamp” to free himself of blame. They have confirmed that Smotkin arranged Pruitt’s initial meeting with Morocco’s Washington Ambassador and accompanied Pruitt during the visit.
Ethics experts are concerned about the highly unusual role a person outside the U.S. government (Smotkin) played in the arrangement of these travel details for the head of a federal agency.
Larry Noble, senior director and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, told The Washington Post that Smotkin’s involvement suggests Pruitt might have gone to Morocco to bolster Pruitt’s standing with the kingdom and helping him to secure the retroactive contract:
“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.”
Details of the trip were further scrutinized last week by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), who bore down on Pruitt during the heated House hearings held to discuss his spending. In particular, Pingree was shocked that Pruitt acted as a natural gas salesmen during his trip, a role she says the head of the EPA has no business holding.
“I can’t, for the life of me, imagine why an EPA administrator would be over there promoting energy sales. 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.”
Pruitt leaned on free-trade in defense of his actions. “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,” he claimed. “We were there in December to negotiate the environmental chapter.”
The accord that Pruitt said was finalized in February actually remains unfinished. It is slated be finished this May.
Pruitt faces multiple inquiries about his spending, ethics and management decisions, including his first-class travels and a $50-a-night condo rental from a Washington lobbyist. The Morocco trip has drawn special scrutiny for its expense and purpose.
Both the Moroccan embassy in Washington and EPA officials maintain that the trip was planned and executed on the up-and-up, appearing to corroborate Pruitt and Smotkin’s version of events – that their contact was minimal, at absolute worst, professional, and that they didn’t begin until after Smotkin left his position as Comcast lobbyist last July.
However, documents released under the Freedom of Information Ace show repeated contact between Pruitt and Smotkin, dating back to the early days of Trump’s administration.
Pruitt’s private calendar also shows the pair dined together just days after Pruitt took office. Officials familiar with Pruitt’s schedule say they dined together “multiple times” last year, after Pruitt’s appointment and prior to the actual trip in December.
The EPA doubled down on their denial, insisting in a statement that Smotkin “did not attend or participate in any official meetings with the Moroccan government,” but individuals familiar with the visit said he was a near-constant presence there. Top officials of the Moroccan government, however, refused to discuss their meetings with Pruitt when probed by The Washington Post.
Justice Minister Mohamed Aujjar of Morocco was asked via cell phone about his meeting with Pruitt, and repeated “Who?” three times to the reporter questioning him, before passing questions off to his spokeswoman who declined to comment.
One of only two Moroccan officials to meet with Pruitt and acknowledge that to the Post was Said Mouline, chief executive of the Moroccan Agency for Energy Efficiency. He said officials at the OPC Policy Center asked him to meet with Pruitt. Smotkin also was listed as a participant at the event.
Pruitt’s trip barely made a peep on Moroccan local media, and their state-run media agency all but ignored it. This is due in part to Pruitt and the EPA failing to announce his visit, a common tactic employed by Pruitt and his team to avoid scrutiny.
The Washington Post remained diligent and was able to expose yet another scandal under Pruitt’s brief tenure.
The real question, of course, is how much longer with the part of “fiscal conservatives” allow this kind of wasteful, unnecessary spending to continue? And if they don’t act fast, who will repay the immense debt Pruitt single-handedly racked up to the American taxpayer?