Scott Pruitt and evangelical voters

CNN's Tom Foreman looks at the possible impact that evangelical voters have on Scott Pruitt keeping his job as EPA administrator.

Posted: May 4, 2018 2:35 AM
Updated: May 4, 2018 2:35 AM

A lobbyist who helped organize Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt's controversial trip to Morocco was also involved in plans for a trip to Australia, according to emails and two sources familiar with the matter.

Richard Smotkin, a lobbyist who secured a contract with the Moroccan government after helping organize Pruitt's trip to Morocco last year, was also a critical link between Environmental Protection Agency officials and a Washington consultant and former lobbyist who helped plan the trip to Australia, the sources said.

Pruitt's trip to Australia was ultimately scuttled -- the EPA said Pruitt needed to handle the agency's response to Hurricane Harvey -- but not before EPA officials spent $45,000 in federal funds on a planning mission to Australia, according to Reuters.

Smotkin connected Matthew Freedman, a Washington consultant and former lobbyist for foreign governments, to EPA officials close to Pruitt and remained copied on emails about the planning for the trip. It also appears Smotkin, who goes by Rick, planned to travel to Australia during Pruitt's planned visit there, with Freedman writing that "Rick and I will attend and will be present but will not be listed as members of the delegation," according to internal EPA emails released to the Sierra Club, an environmental organization, following a lawsuit. The New York Times first reported on the emails.

Over the course of nearly a month, Freedman exchanged emails with two of Pruitt's closest aides at the EPA, Millan Hupp and Sarah Greenwalt, discussing details of the planned trip to Australia, including the schedule, messaging and policy items to emphasize during the trip. Freedman met at least twice with EPA officials to go over planning for the trip, a source familiar with the meetings told CNN.

"EPA's Office of International and Tribal Affairs organized and led the effort around Administrator Pruitt's trip to Australia," EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement. "This trip was canceled due to Hurricane Harvey and it has not been rescheduled."

Smotkin did not respond to a request for comment.

Wilcox did not deny Freedman's involvement, but said that "organization for this trip began well before" Freedman got in touch with EPA officials about the trip.

Freedman declined to comment, but the executive board of the American Australian Council said in a statement to CNN that the organization "authorized board member Matthew Freedman to have discussions with the Environmental Protection Agency" and that the group sent Pruitt a letter in July asking to host him in Australia during his planned visit.

Several other EPA officials are also copied on the emails, including Pruitt's former deputy chief of staff for operations Kevin Chmielewski, who was sidelined by Pruitt after he objected to some of the administration's travel and spending practices. He has since made a series of allegations about Pruitt's management of the EPA in testimony to members of Congress.

Smotkin and Freedman's involvement in the Australia trip follows the revelation that Smotkin helped plan Pruitt's trip to Morocco before securing a $40,000-a-month lobbying contract from the Moroccan government. Another non-EPA official, the conservative activist Leonard Leo, was involved in planning Pruitt's trip to Italy.

The involvement of so many non-government employees in planning foreign travel for the EPA administrator and influencing the use of government funds has raised questions from ethics experts and members of Congress.

"It's no wonder these emails had to be forced out by a court: they expose the fact that corporate lobbyists are orchestrating Pruitt's taxpayer-funded trips to push their dangerous agendas," Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement to CNN.

Smotkin's involvement in two of Pruitt's foreign trips spotlights the former Comcast lobbyist's close relationship with Pruitt and what several administration officials described as his looming presence at the EPA.

"He's just one of those guys who you knew to facilitate all the requests for," one administration official told CNN. "This guy (Smotkin) and the administrator are like two peas in a pod."

The atypical involvement of a lobbyist and outside consultant in at least two of Pruitt's trips also led to rifts inside the EPA and objections from several top EPA aides, two sources familiar with the matter said.

Amid planning for the trips last year, Pruitt's chief of staff Ryan Jackson -- who voiced objections to some of the travel -- was quietly shut out of emails and meetings concerning Pruitt's travel and schedule, the sources said.

Career officials who typically handle international travel were also sidelined, at least in part, with Pruitt delegating the planning of his international trips to Greenwalt -- his senior counselor and longtime aide, two administration officials and one source familiar with the matter said.

Jane Nishida, the principal deputy assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of International and Tribal Affairs, argued in a statement that Greenwalt "plays a pivotal role" as a liaison to the office of international affairs.

"She has been very helpful in providing this important guidance," Nishida said in a statement provided by an EPA spokesman.

The sources said Pruitt's decision to put Greenwalt in charge of his international travel, which came just months into his tenure at EPA, fit a pattern of Pruitt assigning the most sensitive responsibilities to his small cadre of aides who had previously worked with him in Oklahoma before he became EPA administrator -- aides who sources said were more likely to acquiesce to his demands, even as other EPA staffers objected to Pruitt's spending and travel decisions.

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