WASHINGTON AND LOS ANGELES — The White House faced mounting political complications as a second top fundraiser for President Obama was linked to a federal loan guarantee program that backed a now-bankrupt Silicon Valley solar energy company, and as two California lawmakers called for investigations of a state tax break granted to the firm.
Steve Spinner, who helped monitor the Energy Department's issuance of $25 billion in government-backed loans to renewable energy projects, was one of Obama's top fundraisers in 2008 and is raising money for the president's 2012 reelection campaign.
Spinner did not have any role in the selection of applicants for the loan program and, in fact, was recused from the decision to grant a $535-million loan guarantee to Solyndra Inc. because his wife's law firm represented the company, administration officials said Friday.
But Spinner's role as a top official in the Energy Department program, which had not been previously revealed, is likely to spur new inquiries into whether political influence played a role in the handling of the "green" energy fund. Solyndra faces a congressional probe, a criminal investigation and separate internal inquiries at the Energy and Treasury departments.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, September 20, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 3 inches; 109 words Type of Material: Correction
Solyndra: An article in the Sept. 17 Section A said the Energy Department job of Steve Spinner, a major fundraiser for President Obama's 2008 campaign, "had not been previously revealed." The Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News reported Spinner's job in a story in June. The Times was the first to report that as part of that job, which involved giving financial support to renewable energy companies, Spinner monitored the loan guarantee program that backed the now-bankrupt solar panel maker, Solyndra. Also, a photo caption with the story identified the city of Fremont as part of the Silicon Valley. Fremont is across the San Francisco Bay from Silicon Valley.
"This will fuel more questions, and now you've got real people involved at the inspector-general level who will be turning over chairs and cabinets, asking questions," said Stanley Brand, a criminal defense and ethics lawyer in Washington who has served as general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives.
He noted that none of the details that had emerged suggested any laws had been broken. "It's embarrassing, it's ham-handed, it looks bad, but so far all we have is the White House trying to advantage itself in a political way with a loan," he said.
The largest investments in Solyndra were funds operated on behalf of the family foundation of billionaire George Kaiser, another major fundraiser for Obama in 2008. Kaiser has denied personally investing in the solar energy company or talking to White House officials about the loan.
Some Republicans in Congress charge that the White House pushed to get the loan approved for political reasons, which the White House denies.
Before its collapse, Solyndra was a showcase of the White House initiative to develop clean-energy alternatives. Obama visited the factory in May and praised Solyndra as a green technology company that would create jobs and help lead the country's economic recovery.
The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Sept. 6. Two days later, agents with the FBI and Energy Department's inspector general served a search warrant at Solyndra' headquarters in an inquiry focusing on whether the company misled the government in applying for the loans.
In announcing its closure, Solyndra cited an unexpected reduction in demand for its products and intense competition from Chinese companies that drove down the price of solar panels it could sell.
Spinner, who raised at least $500,000 for Obama in 2008, is leading efforts to raise money from the technology industry for the president's reelection campaign. He did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Last week, he invited Obama fundraisers who were in Chicago for a national finance committee meeting to the launch of the Technology for Obama fundraising program. In July, the Obama campaign credited Spinner with raising between $200,000 and $500,000 so far this year.
Spinner was a Silicon Valley investor who founded a sports and wellness company before he joined the administration in April 2009 after serving on Obama's transition team. He was named an advisor to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and was charged with helping oversee a loan guarantee program authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic stimulus program.
"Steve Spinner acted as a liaison between the Recovery Act Office and the Loan Programs Office," Energy Department spokesman Damien LaVera said in a statement Friday. "In that capacity, he played no role in the decision-making or evaluation of the Solyndra loan application."
During his tenure, the program approved 20 loan guarantees totaling $25 billion for energy storage, wind power and solar generation, according to Spinner's resume on LinkedIn. Among them was final approval for Solyndra, which planned to manufacture thin solar modules for flat rooftops.
The company applied for a loan guarantee in December 2006, filing under a program created by George W. Bush's administration. It received a conditional commitment for $535 million in March 2009, shortly before Spinner arrived.
In the months that followed, department staffers negotiated the final terms and provided the Office of Management and Budget with data as it assessed the risks of the deal.