Perhaps the most ethically challenged member of an ethically stunted administration, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt is in the news again, this time over a questionable trip to Morocco made last December. There are a number of unknowns that remain about the trip, in particular its exact motivation, but the Washington Post did a lot of digging into Pruitt’s itinerary and found, like most things Pruitt touches, something seems off.
The optics, as ever, are not good. First, the price tag of more than $100,000 for the four-day journey, including $16,217 for Pruitt’s airfare on Delta, as well as eight staff and security detail, far exceeded previous reports. Scott Pruitt has faced previous criticism for indulgent travel on the government’s dime, so this does not come as a total surprise. More concerning, but maybe not all that surprising either given Pruitt’s track record, is the fact that the December trip was organized and attended by a friend of Pruitt’s, former Comcast lobbyist Richard Smotkin, who, four months after the trip, was awarded “a $40,000-a-month contract, retroactive to Jan. 1, with the Moroccan government to promote the kingdom’s cultural and economic interests,” according to the Post. Smotkin has since registered as a foreign agent representing the Moroccan government. Smotkin’s role in facilitating the trip, including introducing Pruitt to Morocco’s ambassador in Washington, which led to the invitation to visit the country, and his acting as a liaison during the trip, is considered highly unusual for a government agency head’s travel, raising ethical and legal questions about a potential quid pro quo.
Then, there’s the question of whether the trip could even be considered a legitimate business trip and expense for an EPA head whose agency mission is to “protect human health and the environment.” The EPA publicized that part of Pruitt’s time on time was spent on pushing U.S. liquefied natural gas imports to and their potential benefits on Morocco’s economy, which is, minimally, a bit off key for the head of the EPA. “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,” the Post reports. “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.” That certainly makes it look like the trip was only kinda-sorta government business. Stay tuned.
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