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Obama fundraiser took active interest in Solyndra loan, emails show

Steven Spinner, an Energy Department advisor whose wife worked for a law firm representing Solyndra, may have done more than simply monitor the progress of the $535-million loan guarantee to the now-bankrupt company, White House emails indicate.

October 08, 2011|By Neela Banerjee and Matea Gold, Los Angeles Times
  • Solyndra's headquarters in the Northern California city of Fremont. The company closed its doors at the end of August and filed for bankruptcy protection a week later, leaving taxpayers as a major creditor. It has since become the target of FBI inquiries and congressional investigations.
Solyndra's headquarters in the Northern California city of Fremont.… (Robert Galbraith, Reuters )

Reporting from Washington — A top fundraiser for President Obama was far more involved in the $535-million loan guarantee to now-bankrupt solar equipment maker Solyndra than the administration had previously disclosed, according to newly released emails.

Steven Spinner, a former Energy Department official, was supposed to be recused from the decision to select Solyndra to participate in the agency's $25-billion program to back loans for renewable energy projects because his wife's law firm represented the company.

Emails released late Friday by the White House indicated that while he did not weigh in on granting Solyndra its loan guarantee, he may have done more than simply monitor the progress of government aid to the Fremont, Calif., company, which fired 1,100 employees and closed its doors at the end of August and filed for bankruptcy protection a week later, leaving taxpayers as a major creditor.

Solyndra has since become the target of FBI probes and congressional investigations.

The emails also stoked concerns voiced by critics of the loan program that the Obama administration gave out guarantees without adequate due diligence in its effort to create jobs in the renewable energy industry.

Spinner, a Silicon Valley investor who had raised at least $500,000 for Obama in 2008, joined the Energy Department in April 2009 as an advisor on the alternative energy loan programs authorized by the $787-billion stimulus program.

Administration officials said then that Spinner did not have any role in the selection of applicants for the loan program. The Energy Department said Spinner was specifically recused from "engaging in any discussions on decisions affecting specific loan applications" because his wife's law firm represented Solyndra.

The emails obtained from government officials late Friday showed that although Spinner avoided weighing in on the merits of granting a loan guarantee to Solyndra, he actively monitored the status of Solyndra's application.

He expressed frustration with the pace of the approval process and fielded questions from administration officials about whether the investor community was wary of Solyndra.

On June 15, 2009, he wrote to his boss, Matt Rogers, a senior advisor at the Energy Department who oversees stimulus spending: "here's the Solyndra checklist of all of the 60-70 items that need to be done for closing."

A flurry of emails from early August to early September 2009 portrayed Spinner as impatient to show that the stimulus act was producing jobs, especially at so-called clean technology firms such as Solyndra.

He was deeply involved in coordinating a "big event" to announce the approval of Solyndra's loan guarantee, which he envisioned involving "golden shovels, bulldozers, hardhats, etc," according to an Aug. 20, 2009, email.

In addition, the emails showed that he was in close contact with Solyndra executives to plan the event.

In late August 2009, Rogers wrote to Spinner in another email exchange: "Thanks for driving Solyndra."

Federal records show that Allison Spinner's firm, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, received $2.4 million in federal funds for legal fees related to the Solyndra loan guarantee.

Another Spinner email pointed out that his wife's law firm structured her pay so that she didn't earn anything from any work her company did on Solyndra.

The federal agency noted that the firm has said that Allison Spinner "had no role in any firm business involving Solyndra or any other client matters involving the Energy Department while Spinner was in office."

The Energy Department said that career ethics officers made sure that Steven Spinner did not overstep the constraints of his recusal from Solyndra.

Administration officials also noted that recusal from analyzing the merits of the Solyndra loan guarantee did not bar Spinner from working to publicize it or monitoring the decision-making process.

But U.S. Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who are leading the House investigation into the loan guarantee program, were critical.

"The paper trail released by the White House portrays a disturbingly close relationship between President Obama's West Wing inner circle, campaign donors and wealthy investors that spawned the Solyndra mess," they said in a joint statement.

The emails, obtained from government officials, also show former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's interest in the loan guarantee program.

In an Aug. 17, 2009, email, Aditya Kumar, an Emmanuel aide, said that Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff, Ron Klain, had said that Obama wanted to attend the groundbreaking for the new Solyndra plant — or perhaps that Emmanuel wanted him to.

"Ron said this morning that the POTUS [President of the United States] definitely wants to do this (or Rahm wants the Potus to do this)?"

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

matea.gold@latimes.com

Times staff writers Tom Hamburger, Jim Puzzanghera and Melanie Mason in Washington contributed to this report.

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