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Former Obama fundraiser pushed for Solyndra loan

Newly released emails show that an Energy Department adviser was actively involved in discussions about a loan for a failed solar company, despite pledging to recuse himself.
The headquarters of bankrupt Solyndra LLC is shown in Fremont
The headquarters of bankrupt Solyndra LLC is shown in Fremont, California September 20, 2011. Robert Galbraith / REUTERS
/ Source: news services

An Energy Department adviser and former fundraiser for President Barack Obama pushed for a California solar company to receive a half-billion federal loan, despite pledging to recuse himself because his wife's law firm represented the company, newly released emails show.

The emails show that Steve Spinner, a former Obama fundraiser who helped monitor a clean energy loan guarantee program, was more actively involved in a loan for Solyndra LLC than administration officials have acknowledged.

Also revealed in the emails: A top Treasury Department official complained that the Energy Department was keeping her agency in the dark about Solyndra's precarious financial situation.

The emails, released by the administration in response to congressional investigators, show that Spinner was actively involved in a planned September 2009 trip by Vice President Joe Biden to Solyndra's Fremont, Calif., headquarters for a groundbreaking ceremony. Biden did not go on the trip but spoke via satellite. Solyndra declared bankruptcy last month after receiving a $528 million federal loan.

In the emails, Spinner, who founded a sports fitness company, repeatedly pushed Energy Department and White House budget officials to ensure that the loan was finalized before Biden's planned trip. The loan closing was announced at the groundbreaking ceremony on Sept. 4, 2009.

"How — hard is this? What is he waiting for?" Spinner wrote in an Aug, 28, 2009 email to a DOE official. "I have the OVP (Office of the Vice President) and WH (the White House) breathing down my neck on this. They are getting itchy to get involved."

Later that day, Spinner asked the same DOE official to "walk over there and force him to give you the answer.'

The emails refer to a DOE loan guarantee official who was evaluating the Solyndra loan.

A White House official declined to comment when asked if Spinner's conduct was appropriate.

The Obama administration allowed news organizations to read the emails on Friday as it prepared to send them to investigators for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The panel has been looking into the Solyndra and more broadly at the $38 billion loan guarantee program.

Spinner, who served as an adviser to Energy Secretary Steven Chu from April 2009 to September 2010, pledged in writing not to have "active participation" in any solicitation, due diligence or negotiation related to the Solyndra loan, which has become an embarrassment for the White House and a rallying cry for GOP critics of Obama's clean energy program.

Spinner's wife, Allison Berry Spinner, is a partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a firm in Palo Alto, Calif., that represented Solyndra on the DOE loan. Federal records show the firm received at least $2.4 million in legal fees related to the loan.

In one email, Spinner asks a DOE official whether the White House budget office has completed its review of the Solyndra loan.

"Any word on OMB? Solyndra's getting nervous," he wrote, four minutes after receiving an email from Solyndra.

Energy Department spokesman Damien LaVera said Spinner acted as a liaison for the loan program under the economic stimulus law, but that he played no role in evaluating individual loan applications.

"Because his wife agreed not to participate in or receive any financial compensation from her law firm's work on behalf of any loan program applicant, Mr. Spinner was authorized to oversee and monitor the progress of applications, ensure that the program met its deadlines and milestones, and coordinate possible public announcements," LaVera said in an email Friday.

Spinner "was not allowed to make decisions on the terms or conditions of any particular loan guarantee or decide whether a particular transaction was approved," LaVera said, adding that the arrangement was approved by the Energy Department's ethics officer.

Spinner now is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank closely identified with the Obama administration, where he focuses on energy policy.

A biography on the CAP website says Spinner "helped oversee the more than $100 billion of loan guarantee and direct lending authority for the Title XVII Loan Guarantee Program and the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program."

An administration official, speaking on condition that he not be identified because of the congressional investigation, said Friday that Spinner "clearly was actively involved in facilitating between DOE and OMB," the White House budget office, but said his main focus was the planned Biden trip for the Solyndra groundbreaking.

Administration officials cited an August 2009 email from Aditya Kumar, an aide to former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, now Chicago mayor. Kumar asks Spinner who are Solyndra's major investors and receives a detailed answer.

The White House "doesn't even know the names of the (Solyndra) investors," said the official, refuting oft-repeated claims by some GOP lawmakers that the Solyndra deal was approved to benefit Oklahoma billionaire George Kaiser, a Solyndra investor and Obama fundraiser.

The emails also show that Mary Miller, Treasury's assistant secretary for financial markets, contacted the White House budget director in August with her concerns only two weeks before Solyndra filed for bankruptcy and was raided by the FBI.

When the company ran out of cash, the Energy Department agreed in February to a plan to restructure its debt. In that restructuring, some $75 million in private investment was ranked ahead of the government in the event of bankruptcy. That private fund was backed by a prominent Obama fundraiser.

The loan was provided by Treasury's Federal Financing Bank and was guaranteed and monitored by the Energy Department.

Treasury Department lawyers did not think the law allowed for the government loan to be subordinated, Miller said in an Aug. 17 email to Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

"In February, we requested in writing that DOE seek the Department of Justice's approval of any proposed restructuring. To our knowledge, that has never happened,"' Miller said in the email.

She also complained that "DOE has not responded to any requests for information about Solyndra" despite requests dating to July 2010, leaving Treasury to get its information solely from the OMB.

But emails provided by the administration showed that top staff at the Energy Department discussed the concerns with the chief financial officer of Treasury's Federal Financing Bank.

"Ultimately, DOE's determination that the restructuring was legal was made by career lawyers in the loan program based on a careful analysis of the statute," an Energy Department spokesman said.

A Treasury spokesman declined to elaborate on the contents of Miller's email.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has now requested Treasury turn over all documents related to the Solyndra loan guarantee.