Senior Energy official pushed Solyndra loan
WASHINGTON & SANTA FE, NM (By Eric Lipton and John M. Broder, NYT) October 8, 2011 ― A senior Energy Department official pushed hard for the government’s $535 million loan to the now-bankrupt California solar energy company Solyndra even after he had disclosed his wife’s law firm represented the company and he had promised to recuse himself from matters related to the loan application, according to e-mails provided to Congressional investigators by the administration.
The official, Steven J. Spinner, then a senior member of the Energy Department’s loan guarantee oversight office and a 2008 Obama fund-raiser, inquired frequently about the progress of the Solyndra loan, urging the White House budget office to move more quickly on approving it.
He also communicated directly with Solyndra officials who were anxiously awaiting word from Washington that their loan would be approved.
“Any word on O.M.B.?” he asked another Energy Department loan officer. “I have the O.V.P. and W.H. breathing down my neck on this,” referring to the office of the vice president and the White House.
The new e-mails provide further evidence of high-level cheerleading on behalf of Solyndra, a maker of innovative tubular rooftop solar panels that declared bankruptcy last month and laid off 1,100 workers.
But even as Solyndra was being promoted as a model of new technology, administration officials were raising concerns about its viability, the legality of a later restructuring and whether the government was sufficiently protected should the business fail.
The company was the first recipient of a federally guaranteed loan for alternative energy projects, but now is being investigated by the Justice Department over whether it provided misleading financial information to federal authorities.
Congressional investigators are also looking at whether the Obama administration adequately oversaw the granting of the loan.
The latest e-mails also show senior White House and Treasury Department officials voiced concerns at several stages of the ill-fated loan guarantee. At one point, they show the White House considered making a bigger public event than previously known of the formal approval of the company’s financing package.
Top officials, including Rahm Emanuel, then the White House chief of staff, weighed whether President Obama would visit the company to formally announce the loan guarantee, which occurred in September 2009. Ultimately, Mr. Obama did not participate in the event. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. did by video teleconference and Energy Secretary Steven Chu attended. Earlier, Carol Browner, the White House coordinator for energy and climate change policy, met with an investor in the company.
Still, the e-mails reveal White House officials were concerned about the company’s health and the haste with which the loan guarantees were moving, while others were eager to hurry it along to make a public relations splash.
They also show days before the Obama administration gave conditional approval to the loan guarantee, a major investor behind the deal met with Ms. Browner. The investor, David J. Prend, a co-founder of Rockport Capital, a high-technology venture capital firm, met with Ms. Browner in late February 2009 and brought up Solyndra, whose application was then pending.
Solyndra’s chief executive at the time, Chris Gronet, then wrote to the White House on March 6 to describe the company’s plans, after being contacted by Mr. Prend and told to follow up with the White House. “We just need to complete the D.O.E. process and raise the equity portion of the project!” Mr. Gronet wrote, referring to the Department of Energy. “The company is ramping up production to meet a very strong demand.”
Greg Nelson, a midlevel White House staff member, wrote back to Mr. Gronet on March 8, 2009: “It looks like a great product, and the plans for Fab 2 are inspiring,” referring to the manufacturing plant the federal government would finance. Within days, the Energy Department’s credit committee voted to approve the conditional $535 million loan. It was publicly announced on March 21.
Energy Department documents indicate Mr. Spinner was a senior member of the team involved in vetting the loans and was instrumental in the Solyndra package. His wife, Allison B. Spinner, is a partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a Palo Alto, Calif., law firm that represents dozens of Silicon Valley technology firms.
Through her office, Ms. Spinner declined to comment. Mr. Spinner, who has since left the government, did not respond to a message left at his wife’s office.
An Energy Department spokesman, Damien LaVera, said the initial terms of the Solyndra loan guarantee were issued before Mr. Spinner joined the staff. Mr. LaVera added because Ms. Spinner agreed not to participate in or receive any financial compensation from her law firm for work concerning Solyndra, Mr. Spinner was allowed by government ethics officials to oversee the company’s applications. He did not make decisions on the Solyndra transaction.
“As agreed, I will recuse myself from any active participation in any of these applications,” Mr. Spinner wrote in September 2009, after sending dozens of e-mails in August to the head of the Energy Department loan program and other energy and Obama administration officials asking about the Solyndra project.
At that time, officials from the White House budget office were complaining of being rushed to approve a deal about which they had significant concerns.
Administration officials said Friday while Mr. Spinner was involved in helping coordinate the final steps necessary to clear up disputes so the administration could commit the money to Solyndra, it does not mean he violated his agreement not to play a role in formally evaluating the loan application.
Despite the eagerness of Mr. Spinner and other Energy Department officials to see the loan approved, other administration officials continued to raise flags about the company’s viability and the completeness of the loan application package.
A Treasury Department official objected to the decision by the Energy Department that allowed company investors to get first in line among creditors, instead of the federal government, for part of their investment.
“Our legal counsel believes the statute and the D.O.E. regulations both require the guaranteed loan should not be subordinate to any loan or other debt obligation,” said an Aug. 17, 2011, e-mail from a Treasury official to Jeffrey D. Zients, a top official at the White House budget office.
An administration official said Friday the Energy Department disagreed and believed that it did have the legal authority to give priority to private investors, to secure additional financing.