A senior US Energy Department official pushed hard for the government’s US$535 million loan to the now-bankrupt California solar energy company Solyndra even after he had disclosed that 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 Spinner, then a senior member of the Energy Department’s loan guarantee oversight office and a 2008 fundraiser for US President Barack Obama, 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.? [Office of Management and Budget]” he asked another Energy Department loan officer. “I have the O.V.P. [Office of the Vice President] and W.H. [White House] breathing down my neck on this.”
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.
However, 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 US 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 that senior White House and US Treasury Department officials voiced concerns at several stages of the ill-fated loan guarantee. At one point, they show that 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 then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, weighed whether the president would visit the company to formally announce the loan guarantee, which occurred in September 2009. Ultimately, Obama did not participate in the event. US Vice President Joe Biden 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 that some 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 that days before the Obama administration gave conditional approval to the loan guarantee, a major investor behind the deal met with Browner. The investor, David Prend, a co-founder of Rockport Capital, a high--technology venture capital firm, met with Browner in late February 2009 and brought up Solyndra, whose application was then pending.
Then-Solyndra chief executive officer Chris Gronet wrote to the White House on March 6 to describe the company’s plans after being contacted by Prend and told to follow up with the White House.
“We just need to complete the D.O.E. [Department of Energy] process and raise the equity portion of the project!” Gronet wrote. “The company is ramping up production to meet a very strong demand.”
Greg Nelson, a mid-level White House staff member, wrote back to Gronet on March 8, 2009: “It looks like a great product, and the plans for Fab 2 are inspiring,” referring to the manufacturing plant that the federal government would finance.
Within days, the Energy Department’s credit committee voted to approve the conditional US$535 million loan. It was publicly announced March 21.
US Energy Department documents indicate that 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, California, law firm that represents dozens of Silicon Valley technology firms.
Through her office, Allison Spinner declined to comment. Steven 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 Steven Spinner joined the staff. LaVera added that because Allison Spinner agreed not to participate in or receive any financial compensation from her law firm for work concerning Solyndra, Steven Spinner was allowed by government ethics officials to oversee the company’s applications. He did not make decisions on the Solyndra transaction.
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