Influential outsiders have played a key role in Scott Pruitt’s foreign travel
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, shown at a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Scott Pruitt’s itinerary for a February trip to Israel was remarkable by any standard for an Environmental Protection Agency administrator: A stop at a controversial Jewish settlement in the West Bank. An appearance at Tel Aviv University. A hard-to-get audience with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
One force behind Pruitt’s eclectic agenda: casino magnate and Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, a major supporter of Israel who arranged parts of Pruitt’s visit.
The Israel trip was canceled days before Pruitt’s planned departure, after The Washington Post revealed his penchant for first-class travel on the taxpayers’ dime. But federal documents obtained by The Post and interviews with individuals familiar with the trip reveal that it fit a pattern by Pruitt of planning foreign travel with significant help from outside interests, including lobbyists, Republican donors and conservative activists.
After taking office last year, Pruitt drew up a list of at least a dozen countries he hoped to visit and urged aides to help him find official reasons to travel, according to four people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal agency deliberations. Pruitt then enlisted well-connected friends and political allies to help make the trips happen.
Longtime Pruitt friend Richard Smotkin, for example, helped arrange Pruitt’s four-day visit to Morocco in December. Smotkin, who has not returned calls seeking comment, later signed a $40,000-a-month lobbying contract with the Moroccan government.
American Australian Council treasurer Matthew Freedman, whose group’s members include ConocoPhillips, helped line up a September trip to Australia, where Pruitt was scheduled to promote liquefied natural gas exports during a tour of the company’s natural gas facility. That trip also was canceled. Freedman did not respond to calls seeking comment; the council said it “authorized” Freedman to “have discussions” with the EPA about the trip.
And in Israel, Pruitt was scheduled to unveil an agreement with Water-Gen, an Israeli water purification company championed by Adelson. Adelson does not have a financial stake in Water-Gen, according to his aides and the company, but was impressed by its technology and had urged Pruitt to meet with Water-Gen executives soon after he took office. That meeting took place on March 29, 2017.
Within weeks, Pruitt instructed his aides to find a way to procure Water-Gen’s technology, according to two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. The EPA signed an agreement with the company in January; Pruitt had hoped to announce it while he was in Israel. Water-Gen is now working with EPA technical staff in Cincinnati to test its technology in hopes of obtaining a federal contract to provide drinking water in places where the water supply has been contaminated.
On Thursday, Adelson’s top political adviser, Andy Abboud, confirmed his involvement in planning Pruitt’s Israel agenda, but played down its significance, saying, “Many people consult” Adelson before making the journey.
“In some cases, we will make an introduction to various officials traveling to Israel and Israeli staff officials,” Abboud said. Of the planned Pruitt trip, he said: “It was very perfunctory, and I would describe them as simple introductions.”
In an email, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said agency officials in the Office of International and Tribal Affairs “organized and led the effort around Administrator Pruitt’s” trip to Israel, as well as planned journeys to Italy, Morocco, Mexico and Australia. Wilcox declined to answer questions about Adelson’s role, Water-Gen or other travel-related matters.
Pruitt’s practice of involving outsiders in his travels raises serious ethical concerns, legal experts said; federal law prohibits public officials from using their office to enrich themselves or any private individual, or to offer endorsements.
Late Thursday, Democratic Sens. Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) wrote to Pruitt seeking more information about the Israel trip, the agency’s agreement with Water-Gen and “the role Mr. Adelson or other non-governmental officials played.”
Along with Israel and Australia, Pruitt’s wish list for global travel included Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Panama, Poland, Japan, India and Canada, former staff members said, adding that Pruitt asked staffers to schedule the trips at a pace of roughly one per month. Political and career officials at the EPA suggested a handful of other destinations, these people said, including China and Germany.
So far, Pruitt has traveled only to Italy and Morocco. He has canceled trips to Australia, Japan and Israel after extensive advance work by EPA officials.
In Italy and Morocco, Pruitt granted his friends unusual access to official events. In Italy, for example, Pruitt met up in Rome with Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society.
Leo, who is Catholic, personally arranged private events for Pruitt and his aides, including a private tour of the Vatican Library and the Apostolic Palace, according to a participant in the trip. When Pruitt left a private Vatican Mass for a discussion of environmental policy with Archbishop Paul Gallagher, he invited Leo to join the meeting, according to two participants on the Italy trip.
Leo declined Thursday to comment.
In Morocco, Smotkin joined Pruitt’s entourage on multiple stops, including a meeting with one of the kingdom’s most prominent business leaders, according to three individuals familiar with the trip.
Legal experts said that it is highly unusual for private citizens to participate in official meetings when Cabinet members travel overseas, and that such invitations could be construed as tacit endorsements of a group’s agenda. Federal ethics rules prohibit public officials from endorsing “any product, service or enterprise,” said Don Fox, a former acting director of the Office of Government Ethics.
“This is the problem with Pruitt,” said Virginia Canter, executive branch ethics counsel for the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “He’s basically acting as a lobbyist for all of his friends.”
From his first days at the EPA, Pruitt made clear to top aides that Israel was high on his agenda. Pruitt had met Adelson while serving as Oklahoma attorney general, and he agreed when Adelson suggested he meet with executives from Water-Gen.
Yehuda Kaploun, president of Water-Gen USA, said Thursday that Adelson became an enthusiastic backer after learning about the company’s innovative method of drawing potable water from moisture in the air.
While Adelson had no investments or other financial involvement in the company, Kaploun said, he asked executives “whether we’d be prepared to meet with EPA.”
On March 29, 2017, Kaploun and the parent company’s executive chairman, Maxim Pasik, met with Pruitt in his office in Washington. The entry in Pruitt’s official calendar, released under a public records request, includes a note that reads: “This came as a request of Sheldon Adelson.”
Water-Gen executives brought along one of the company’s “home and office” units, which can produce three to five gallons of water a day, and removed it from Pruitt’s office about a week later. During the meeting, Kaploun said, Pruitt asked company executives to meet with EPA water experts, inquired how quickly they could scale up and wanted to know whether they intended to manufacture in the United States.
“The administrator’s goal, which he stated at the meeting, is that this can help people. It can give people clean air and water,” Kaploun said, adding that Pruitt mentioned the Flint, Mich., drinking-water crisis as one potential use.
Pasik had a follow-up meeting with Pruitt in May, according to Pruitt’s calendar, and a few months later, the EPA announced that it was seeking up to four private-sector partners “for a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement to investigate the potential use of atmospheric water generators.”
Such agreements often involve multiple firms. In this case, the EPA has so far cemented an agreement only with Water-Gen, in January. It was scheduled to be unveiled in February, during Pruitt’s trip to Israel.
Many of the planned stops on that trip were the sort any EPA administrator would undertake, according to Pruitt’s itinerary. For example, he was scheduled to meet with ministers of environmental protection and energy, visit a wastewater facility in Jerusalem and stop at one of the world’s largest desalination plants.
Other proposed stops were less clearly related to his mission, such as excursions to the City of David and the Galilee region, where Jesus once preached. Just before Pruitt was scheduled to depart, an Adelson associate met Pruitt aides Millan Hupp and Sarah Greenwalt in Israel to hammer out details of some of those events, according to a person familiar with those meetings.
Although the trip was canceled, EPA testing of Water-Gen’s technology continues. Federal officials said a second company, AquaSciences, could soon be added to the agreement.
Kaploun said that Water-Gen “followed total protocol” in seeking EPA approval and that as far as he knew, no other firms had initially applied.
“Our technology is so advanced that no one else is in the same realm,” he said, adding that Water-Gen had shouldered the cost of delivering one of its units to the EPA lab.
Kaploun and Water-Gen’s U.S. CEO, Edward Russo — a former environmental consultant to Donald Trump who authored a book titled “Donald J. Trump: An Environmental Hero” — visited the president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in March. They briefed Trump about the technology, and the president invited them to the Oval Office for a demonstration, Kaploun said.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.