A controversial trip to Morocco by Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt in December was partly arranged by a longtime friend and lobbyist, who accompanied Pruitt and his entourage at multiple stops and served as an informal liaison at both official and social events during the visit.
Richard Smotkin, a former Comcast lobbyist who has known the EPA administrator for years, worked for months with Pruitt's aides to hammer out logistics, according to four individuals familiar with those preparations. In April, Smotkin won a $40,000-a-month contract, retroactive to Jan. 1, with the Moroccan government to promote the kingdom's cultural and economic interests. He recently registered as a foreign agent representing that government.
The four-day journey has drawn scrutiny from lawmakers and the EPA inspector general, who is investigating its high costs and whether it adhered to the agency's mission to "protect human health and the environment."
Information obtained by the Washington Post shows the visit's cost exceeded $100,000, more than twice what has been previously reported — including $16,217 for Pruitt's Delta airfare and $494 for him to spend one night at a luxury hotel in Paris. He was accompanied by eight staffers and his round-the-clock security detail.
Smotkin's role in arranging the whirlwind visit was highly unusual, ethics experts say, and raises many questions. Federal laws prohibit public officials from using government resources to financially benefit friends, relatives or other people with whom they have personal connections.
Smotkin did not return calls and emails seeking comment about his role in the trip or his relationship with Pruitt.
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.
For months, many details about the journey have remained shrouded in secrecy, particularly the highly unusual role of Smotkin. These previously unreported details underscore lawmakers' questions about whether the trip was in keeping with Pruitt's role as the nation's top environmental official.
The EPA has insisted that the trip was a legitimate effort to nail down details of a bilateral trade agreement, and the agency said Monday that Pruitt was unaware of the depth of Smotkin's business relationship with the Moroccan government.
Ethics experts note that it is highly unusual for someone outside the U.S. government to help arrange such travel details for the head of a federal agency. Larry Noble, senior director and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said Tuesday that the lobbyist's involvement raises issues about whether Pruitt went to Morocco partly to bolster Smotkin's standing within the kingdom.
"It shows, at the very least, a tremendous amount of sloppiness, and it raises ethical issues about the relationship between Smotkin and Pruitt," Noble said. "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."
Even as some aspects of the trip remain unclear, EPA officials confirmed that Smotkin brokered Pruitt's initial meeting with Morocco's ambassador in Washington, when she extended an invitation to travel to her country. Smotkin also accompanied Pruitt at multiple stops during his visit, the EPA and others confirmed.
Unlike most Cabinet-level travel, for which the agenda and policy outcomes are finalized weeks in advance, Pruitt's office changed the schedule even while he was there, according to several individuals familiar with the visit. Though the EPA chief did visit a solar power research installation, he canceled a public appearance with an energy efficiency expert at an international conference in Marrakesh and instead met with the chairman of a massive phosphate exporter.
Smotkin attended both the green-energy park visit and the meeting with the phosphate executive. He also joined Pruitt for dinner on the EPA chief's final night in Marrakesh, the EPA confirmed.
The reasons behind the trip came up again last week in Washington when Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) grilled Pruitt during the second of two contentious House hearings. She pressed him on why the EPA trumpeted the fact that part of his time was spent promoting the benefits of U.S. liquefied natural gas imports on Morocco's economy.
"I can't, for the life of me, imagine why an EPA administrator would be over there promoting energy sales," Pingree said. "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."
"There's a free-trade agreement," Pruitt replied. "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. We were there in December to negotiate the environmental chapter. That was the focus of the trip. There was a lot of reference made to [liquefied natural gas] only because the ambassador asked me to share that with the individuals when I was in country."
The accord that Pruitt said was finalized in February actually remains unfinished. It is slated to be done this month.
This account of his Morocco visit is based on federal records, as well as interviews with government officials and members of the private sector in both countries. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the questions now being raised. The Paris-based publication Africa Intelligence recently reported on some elements of the trip.
Multiple administration officials say Pruitt actually had raised the prospect of going to Morocco well before he received a formal invitation from its ambassador to the United States, Princess Lalla Joumala, during a meeting at EPA headquarters in late October — a meeting EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox acknowledged that Smotkin "assisted in arranging."
Smotkin worked with two of Pruitt's top aides, senior counsel Sarah Greenwalt and then-deputy advance director Millan Hupp, to line up specific aspects of the agenda, according to four individuals familiar with the process, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the agency's internal workings.
For example, Smotkin discussed the prospect of Pruitt speaking at the Atlantic Dialogues, a conference in Marrakesh underwritten by the OCP Center, the think-tank arm of a major phosphate export firm in Morocco. Pruitt later canceled his appearance.
Some of this scheduling activity took place before the meeting with Morocco's ambassador, these individuals said. At the time, Pruitt indicated he had been invited by Prince Moulay Rachid, the king's brother. During the subsequent planning, individuals familiar with the discussions said, Pruitt repeatedly expressed interest in how the trip could help advance American natural gas interests.
Moroccan officials, who are hoping to establish a terminal that could ship imported liquefied natural gas to the country's power plants, announced two weeks before Pruitt's arrival that they would be soliciting bids sometime in 2018. That imported gas could help power a number of operations, including Morocco's phosphate industry.
Asked about the visit, the Morocco Embassy in Washington released a statement Monday: "All meetings during this working visit were organized through official diplomatic channels with the objective to explore ways and means to deepen and broaden our bilateral work, namely in support of the Kingdom's various initiatives to protect the environment, reduce Morocco's carbon footprint and promote sustainable development."
Separately, the EPA said in a statement that its "Office of International and Tribal Affairs organized and led the effort around Administrator Pruitt's official meetings with the Moroccan government."
Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said that Smotkin, who had served as the company's liaison to state attorneys general, left that position in July. He has known Pruitt for roughly a decade, she said.
But documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show repeated contact between the two men, including texts, during the early days of the Trump administration. Pruitt's calendar also shows that they ate together just days after he was sworn into office, and officials familiar with his schedule say they dined together on multiple occasions last year.
Weeks after Pruitt's confirmation, Smotkin also orchestrated for Pruitt to meet personally with former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In an exchange first reported by The HuffPost, Smotkin emailed one of the administrator's schedulers to bring the two men together.
"Hi there. Been texting w the boss," Smotkin wrote Sydney Hupp. "What times would be best on Monday to make this happen?"
"Hey Rick, you already spoke with Admin. Pruitt about this? Looking at Monday now…. Thanks!" replied Hupp, whose sister Millan now directs scheduling and advance for EPA.
"Yep. We texted," replied Smotkin. The meeting happened days later.
But that brief "meet and greet" at EPA headquarters pales in comparison to Pruitt's trip to Morocco, notable in part for his costly premium-class airfare and his stays in at least two Sofitels, part of the French-owned luxury chain.
The actual journey was beset by logistical problems. His entourage's flight from Washington Dulles Airport was plagued by weather delays, prompting him, his aides and security agents to miss their connecting flight in Paris. Pruitt and a handful of aides instead went into Paris to spend the night in a $494-a-night hotel.
Pruitt's late arrival in Rabat caused him to miss a scheduled U.S. Embassy briefing and roundtable there. The discussion focused on how American firms were pioneering technological innovation in Morocco and could benefit from an increased natural gas supply — an event Wilcox said that Smotkin also attended.
The administrator had a single meeting after arriving on Dec. 11, according to his public schedule, with the chief executive of the Moroccan Agency of Sustainable Energy. A spokesman for Mustapha Bakkoury said he was not available for an interview and did not reply to a request that he confirm the businessman met with Pruitt.
That evening, Pruitt and his staffers stayed at the Sofitel Rabat Jardin des Roses. His accompanying protective detail made an impression on some hotel staffers, with one employee recognizing Pruitt and an aide right away when shown photos last weekend.
"They were here in December," she said. "They had lots of security with them. They were unapproachable."
The EPA said 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. According to two individuals, he communicated with Isam Taib, political counselor to the Moroccan Embassy in Washington. Taib not only traveled back to his home country for Pruitt's arrival, he also signed the official contract retaining Smotkin's public relations services.
Top Moroccan government officials were unwilling to discuss their dealings with Pruitt.
On a visit last week to Rabat by a Washington Post reporter, several officials who met with him would not even acknowledge doing so — despite photos the EPA itself published from some of those sessions.
Pruitt's public schedule lists back-to-back appointments on the morning of Dec. 12 with Mounia Boucetta, a top official in the foreign ministry; Aziz Rabbah, the minister of energy, mines and sustainable development; and Justice Minister Mohamed Aujjar.
Reached on his cellphone, Aujjar was asked about his meeting with Pruitt. He said "Who?" three times as the reporter repeated Pruitt's name, then referred questions to his spokeswoman, who did not answer repeated requests for confirmation of the two men's meeting.
Boucetta and her press spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for confirmation of her meeting with Pruitt. Rabbah's spokeswoman initially said he would do an in-person interview, then a few hours later said he was no longer available. She later would not confirm that meeting because she said his schedule was "confidential."
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.
Mouline and Pruitt were originally scheduled to have an onstage discussion at the event, but it was canceled at the last minute for reasons Mouline said he did not know. Instead, he said, the two shared breakfast on Dec. 13 at the Es Saadi Marrakesh Resort in Marrakesh.
Pruitt and several aides listened quietly as he explained his agency's work in promoting renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, Mouline recalled. He said he also spoke about climate change and how Africa is not a major producer of greenhouse gases but "is a continent that suffers a lot" from the warming of the planet.
On their way from Rabat to Marrakesh the previous day — a several-hour trip by van — Pruitt and his group had stopped in the town of Ben Guerir to visit the Green Energy Park. The space is an incubator for solar power and other renewable energy technologies founded by IRESEN, a Moroccan public research center, the energy ministry and OCP, the industrial giant that mines, refines and exports phosphates used in fertilizers all over the world.
Bakr Ikken, who runs the park and led Pruitt's tour, said it lasted a little more than an hour and that Pruitt seemed fully engaged in issues from electric cars to new energy-storage technologies. Ikken said that he discussed Morocco's efforts to improve natural gas production as part of his presentation but that Pruitt didn't raise the U.S. gas industry.
"I had a real positive feeling about him," Ikken said. "Maybe he was impressed by what we are doing."
Pruitt and his aides also visited the adjacent Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, a research institution that was opened by King Mohammed VI last year and is largely supported by OCP and, like the green park, built on land owned by the company. There, Pruitt met with Chief Executive Mostafa Terrab. Again, Smotkin was there, according to two people familiar with the meeting.
"OCP is often invited to be present during major events or visits of important dignitaries to the University and Green Energy Park, and it is in this context that Mr. Terrab greeted Administrator Pruitt," a company statement said.
According to an OCP official, Pruitt heard a presentation about the university's role in creating sustainable energy and development for Morocco and the rest of Africa. This official said the company's commercial interests were not part of the presentation, though one individual familiar with the session said OCP officials spoke extensively about its role as a phosphate producer and exporter.
Pruitt's trip barely registered in the local media in Morocco and went virtually unmentioned by the state-run media agency, perhaps because the EPA gave no notice he was coming — a typical practice since he took office.
By midmorning on Dec. 13, Pruitt and his entourage boarded a plane in Marrakesh for the flight home, connecting in Amsterdam and New York, according to his public schedule.