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More scrutiny for Pruitt's Morocco trip from Democrats, EPA inspector general

The Morocco trip cost more than $17,000 from Pruitt's flight alone.

April 4, 2018, 5:45 PM

While traveling to Morocco last year, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt promoted an issue that could benefit his past energy industry donors -- and also clients of the lobbying firm tied to his controversial Capitol Hill condo deal, several Democratic lawmakers told ABC News.

The Morocco trip, which cost more than $17,000 from Pruitt's flight alone, was previously flagged to investigators for the EPA’s inspector general because of the costs of his first-class travel.

The EPA's inspector general expanded the inquiry into Pruitt's travel following a December letter to his office from Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, who wanted information about reports that the trip cost as much as $40,000.

Carper also asked the inspector general to look into the purpose of Pruitt's trip, citing concern that natural gas exports are not part of EPA's mission to "protect human health and the environment."

In response to that request, the IG said he would expand the scope of the investigation of Pruitt's travel costs through the end of 2017 and would look at whether EPA followed all policies and procedures. The IG did not say in the letter that the inquiry would include the subject matter of the trip.

Now several lawmakers are calling for the internal watchdog to also look at one of Pruitt’s missions while there — promoting U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports.

That appears to fall outside the typical purview of the agency, the lawmakers told ABC News. The job of encouraging U.S. oil and gas exports usually falls to the U.S. Energy Department.

“I think it’s outrageous,” said Rep. David N. Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, told ABC News late Tuesday. “The EPA is charged with serving the American people to keep our air clean and our water safe. This is not an area within his portfolio. He’s not supposed to be globetrotting to promote the sale of LNG.”

Details of the December 2017 trip, which included a two-day layover in Paris, have drawn scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers, especially since reports surfaced that Pruitt was renting a $50-a-night bedroom from the wife of J. Steven Hart, the chairman of Williams and Jensen, a firm that does extensive lobbying in the oil and gas arena. The condo was co-owned by Hart’s wife, who is a healthcare lobbyist.

At least two of William and Jensen’s clients, Cheniere Energy and Exxon Mobil, had lobbyists working on issues tied to LNG, disclosure filings show. Hart was registered personally to lobby for Cheniere, though he said in a statement that he made no contacts to Pruitt or the EPA on behalf of them or any other client.

Last year, Cheniere Energy Inc. reported paying Hart’s firm $80,000, and the firm specifically lobbied on “issues related to the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG), approval of LNG exports and export facilities.” The firm also lists on its website that it lobbies on other EPA policies like the Clean Air Act.

Cheniere Energy spokeswoman Rachel Carmichel told ABC News the company ended its relationship with Hart’s firm in December 2017. The spokeswoman went on to say Cheniere was unaware of the relationship between Pruitt and the lobbyist and had not used Hart’s firm to have conversations with the EPA.

Exxon Mobile has not responded to questions about the matter.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told ABC News that no one from Cheniere or Williams and Jensen attended meetings with Pruitt during the Morocco trip, or beforehand to prepare for the foreign visit. Wilcox pointed to a press release issued following the trip, that described Pruitt’s activities in the country.

While there, the release says, Pruitt “outlined U.S. environmental priorities for updating the Environmental Work Plan under the U.S.-Morocco Free Trade Agreement.” The release also says Pruitt discussed “the potential benefit of liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports on Morocco’s economy.”

Scott PruittEnvironmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks at a news conference at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, April 3, 2018.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks at a news conference at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, April 3, 2018.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) wrote a letter to Pruitt Tuesday seeking more information about the Morocco trip. Whitehouse’s staff has been reviewing Pruitt’s appointment calendar, and the senator said he was concerned by entries showing he held “several meetings with companies and lobbying groups that have business interests in LNG import terminals and related facilities.”

Whitehouse said in the letter he was concerned that Pruitt’s decision to travel to Morocco was influenced by companies that had donated to his past political efforts

“We do know from reporting and public sources that Devon Energy, a large natural gas producer, and the … American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers each donated sums in the six figures to electioneering groups associated with you, and that Devon and other oil and gas companies were large contributors to your campaigns in Oklahoma,” Whitehouse wrote.

In 2010, Devon gave $5,000 to Pruitt’s campaign for Oklahoma attorney general. A spokesperson for Devon has not replied to messages. American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers also has not responded to calls for comment.

Whitehouse’s letter also raised questions about the only briefing mentioned on Pruitt’s calendar that was held to prepare for the Morocco trip. The calendar entry showed the meeting was attended not by career EPA employees, but by a team of Pruitt aides that came with him to the EPA from Oklahoma.

“If these were the individuals who advised you about your trip before you departed, it would suggest the purpose had little to do with EPA’s mission and more to do with interests from your time in Oklahoma,” Whitehouse wrote. “Indeed, one of those interests may be the importance of natural gas exports to producers in Oklahoma.”

PHOTO: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, center right, talks with Moroccan Secretary of State of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mounia Boucetta, during a trip to Morocco in December of 2017.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, center right, talks with Moroccan Secretary of State of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mounia Boucetta, during a trip to Morocco in December of 2017.

In addition, four other lawmakers have joined together with a new request for information from the EPA on Pruitt's contacts with the lobbyist whose wife co-owned the condo unit he rented. “Did you ever discuss your trip to Morocco to promote liquefied natural gas with the landlord, their affiliates, or visitors you met at the rental property? If so, what topics were discussed, and with whom?” the letter says. It is signed by U.S. Senators Tom Udall D-N.M. and Brian Schatz D-Hawaii and Reps. Don Beyer D-Va. and Ted Lieu D-Calif.

A spokesman for the agency told ABC News that two career EPA officials traveled with the administrator, in addition to senior advisors who had a history of working with him in Oklahoma.

Cicilline said he hopes Congress will step in to provide greater scrutiny of Pruitt’s publicly-financed travel agenda.

“I would like to see us have some hearings to understand the process that was followed to permit this trip to happen,” Cicilline said. “We recognize the executive branch has broad latitude to travel to do their work. But we need confidence that there is some meaningful oversight. That there is some process, some standards.”

ABC News' John Santucci contributed to this report.

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