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Scott Pruitt’s Morocco trip raises ethical questions about lobbyist ties

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt faces at least 11 investigations for ways he has spent money on travel, security and pay raises for staff. Now the Washington Post and others report that Pruitt's trip to North Africa was arranged by a friend and lobbyist who was later awarded a contract with the Moroccan government. William Brangham learns more from Juliet Eilperin from the Washington Post.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has been under heavy scrutiny for the way he has spent money on travel, security and pay raises for his staff.

    He's now facing at least 11 investigations related to a variety of such matters.

    Now, as William Brangham tells us, Pruitt's in the spotlight yet again, this time over a trip to Morocco.

  • William Brangham:

    The Washington Post and others reported that Pruitt's trip to North Africa last December was arranged in part by his longtime friend former Comcast lobbyist Richard Smotkin.

    A few months after the trip, according to The Post, Smotkin was awarded a one-year $40,000-a-month contract with the Moroccan government. Federal laws prohibit public officials from using government resources to financially benefit their friends. But the EPA has insisted this trip was proper and that Smotkin didn't attend any official meetings and that Administrator Pruitt did not fully know about Smotkin's ties to the Moroccan government.

    The purpose of the trip has also been publicly questioned by some lawmakers, and so was its cost, which reportedly topped $100,000.

    Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post helped break this most recent story about Scott Pruitt. And she joins me once again.

    Welcome.

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Hello.

  • William Brangham:

    What else can you tell us about this trip to Morocco and the questions about it?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    So, there are a lot of interesting aspects of this trip, but I would start with the fact that, first of all, many people, as you noted, questioned why the administrator was going there.

    It is true that he did spend part of his time working on a bilateral environmental chapter of a trade agreement between Morocco and the U.S. However, according to the reporting that we have done, he was very focused on the issue of natural gas exports from the United States to Morocco.

    That's what he focused on in the run-up to the trip and also while he was there. And, again, much of this trip was arranged by Richard Smotkin. So, this is a friend of his who has worked as a lobbyist in different capacities.

    And both some of the information we got today as well as yesterday shows that he was intimately involved in essentially serving as a liaison between the Moroccan government and Pruitt's top aides, both as they were trying to decide what he would do and once they arrived in Morocco. He joined them. He was a constant presence, whether it was in social events, as well as some of the official meetings on the itinerary.

  • William Brangham:

    So, the question about this, I guess, would be that Smotkin helps arrange the trip and in some way helps Pruitt get to Morocco, and then a few months later Smotkin gets this very lucrative contract.

    That seems to be the ethical question here?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Yes, that's the most pressing ethical question that is raised on this.

    Interestingly, he registered as a foreign agent last month. And that's when the contract was signed. But it was retroactive to January 1, so two weeks after they returned to the United States. And the liaison that he worked with in the run-up to the trip, who is on there is the person who ultimately gave him the contract.

  • William Brangham:

    Shifting gears a little bit, two of Scott Pruitt's top aides recently resigned. Tell us about who those men were and the timing of this.

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Yes.

    Just this week, two of Pruitt's top aides are formally leaving the EPA. That includes Albert Kelly, who was one of his top aides who oversaw the Superfund program and the initiative that Mr. Pruitt has been pursuing, which he has been very focused on, and Pasquale "Nino" Perrotta, who is the head of Mr. Pruitt's security detail.

    Both of them were top advisers to the administrator who weighed in on both on the issues which they were in charge of, as well as other issues, hiring issues, strategy and things like that.

    And so what we're seeing is that Mr. Perrotta today was scheduled to meet with House investigators and has come under great scrutiny for some of the recommendations he made which led to, say, Mr. Pruitt's first-class travel and other activities.

    And then Mr. Kelly, who by all accounts had taken a serious role and policy-oriented role at the department, is under scrutiny for some of his financial dealings back in Oklahoma.

  • William Brangham:

    As we said initially, Scott Pruitt is under 11 different investigations, and many have wondered why he is still in this job, but obviously the president still has full faith in him.

    And many have pointed out that this is probably because he has been so tenacious in undoing President Obama's environmental regulations. One of them has been lowering, apparently, the fuel emission standards for automobiles. This was a big part of the Obama legacy and something that Scott Pruitt has been rolling back on.

    Just this week, California and 16 other states have said that they are going to file suit to try to block the EPA from lowering those national standards.

    From an automaker perspective, if you are wondering, you're looking at California and these states arguing this, and the EPA arguing something else, that is going to cause a lot of confusion for the industry.

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Absolutely. It's a difficult time for automakers who are trying to decide what sort of cars should they manufacture just a few years from now.

    We're talking about model year 2022, which obviously goes on sale in 2021. So what is happening is that they are — on one level, they didn't initially ask the Trump administration to potentially roll back these standards.

    But now, given that California and the states allied with it compose roughly a third of the nation's auto market, they're trying to figure out what kind of cars they will be producing and for whom. And that certainly makes these decisions difficult.

  • William Brangham:

    Juliet Eilperin, thanks so much, as always, to help us wade through all this.

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    You're welcome.

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