Lobbyist helped organize controversial Pruitt trip to Morocco: report

Lobbyist helped organize controversial Pruitt trip to Morocco: report
© Greg Nash
 
Richard Smotkin, who registered retroactively last month to represent the government of Morocco, is a longtime friend of Pruitt’s and reportedly went along with him to meetings and social events during the EPA chief's four-day jaunt to the country.
 
The trip, which has drawn scrutiny from lawmakers and the EPA's inspector general, ended up costing more than $100,000 — more than double the previously reported amount, according to documents obtained by the Post.
 
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The EPA confirmed to the Post that Smotkin arranged for Pruitt's initial meeting in Washington with Morocco’s ambassador to the U.S., which led to an invitation for the EPA chief to visit the country.
 
While in Morocco for the trip, Smotkin went with Pruitt to meetings, the Post reported, including a visit to a green energy research facility and a dinner on Pruitt’s final night.
 
Despite his involvement in Pruitt's trip, the EPA said in a statement to The Hill that "Smotkin did not attend or participate in any official meetings with the Moroccan government."
 
“Mr. Smotkin assisted in arranging the October 25 meeting [with the Moroccan ambassador], but EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs organized and led the effort around Administrator Pruitt’s official meetings with the Moroccan government,” an EPA spokesman said in an email to The Hill.
 
“Cooperation with Morocco was identified as an Agency priority since the Environmental Work Plan was up for renegotiation," he added.
 
According to the Post, Smotkin had also been involved with planning an excursion to Morocco before the official invitation. The EPA told The Hill that Pruitt had been invited to a conference, the Atlantic Dialogues, which he ultimately did not attend. The Post report noted that Smotkin had discussed the possibility of Pruitt speaking at the event.
 
"Administrator Pruitt received an invitation to speak at the Atlantic Dialogues in Marrakech and EPA was evaluating whether to attend. At the October meeting, the Moroccan Ambassador to the U.S. invited Administrator Pruitt to come to Morocco to discuss the Environmental Work Plan," the EPA spokesman said.
 
The United States is currently working on an update to a free-trade agreement it has with Morocco, and Pruitt said during a contentious congressional hearing last week that the December trip was part of the renegotiations to the environmental chapter, known as the Environmental Work Plan. The deal is expected to be done this month.
 
Smotkin filed paperwork on April 13 with the Justice Department, registering to represent the Embassy of Morocco for $40,000 per month at firm ThirdCircle, Inc., though documents say the work began on Jan. 1, less than a month after Pruitt’s trip.
 
Contract documents say he is working to promote Morocco as a “world class golf destination” and a premier place for Hollywood filmmakers to shoot. Smotkin will also “provide opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue with various stakeholder and ethnic/issue oriented groups across a range of issues from culture to economics.”
 
Smotkin previously served as a senior executive in Comcast’s lobbying shop, though he never registered to lobby. Individuals only need to register with the federal government as lobbyists if they spend 20 percent or more of their time representing clients before Capitol Hill and high-level executive branch officials.
 
While at Comcast, he organized trips for Hollywood executives to visit Morocco, according to Variety magazine. In recent years, it has been touted as an increasingly popular filming destination for movies and television shows, including the movie “Beirut” with Rosamund Pike and Jon Hamm, and the Showtime series “Homeland.” 
 
According to the Variety story from 2016, Smotkin had worked with the Moroccan government to promote and push through tax incentives for filmmakers. 
 
Agency records that The Washington Post obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that Smotkin and Pruitt have continued their longtime friendship during his time in the Trump administration.
 
Pruitt's trip to Morocco is the subject of one of several investigations into his activities and travel while at the EPA.
 
In total, expenses for Pruitt, eight EPA staffers and his bodyguards for the trip soared upwards of $100,000, including more than $16,000 in airfare alone, the Post reported.
 
After the group missed a connecting flight in Paris, Pruitt stayed overnight in a $494-per-night hotel, according to the report.
 
The trip had previously been billed as costing about $40,000.
 
Agency watchdogs are probing whether the trip — which included the promotion of U.S. natural gas — falls within the agency’s mission to “protect human health and the environment.”
 
The EPA released a statement last year saying that Pruitt also “outlined U.S. environmental priorities for updating the Environmental Work Plan under the U.S.-Morocco Free Trade Agreement.” 
 
During the trip, the EPA said the administrator spoke with Moroccan government officials about “the potential benefit of liquefied natural gas imports on Morocco’s economy.”
 
The Post noted that Smotkin's role helping arrange the trip is now drawing added scrutiny, given that it is unusual for someone outside the government to help arrange travel details for a Cabinet-level official.
 
Federal ethics rules prohibit public officials from using their high-level positions or government resources to financially benefit friends, family and others outside government.
 
Pruitt’s closeness with Washington lobbyists has been part of the inquiries into his behavior while at the agency, including his arrangement to rent a condo from the spouse of an energy lobbyist for $50 per night while he stayed there.