Federal officials in February disclosed a document detailing ways in which the Treasury Department might cooperate with billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer.
The document, a previously unreported briefing memorandum provided to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew released after months of unsuccessful efforts to prevent its public disclosure, lays out the agenda of a June meeting on U.S. climate policy with Steyer and a number of White House officials.
The event focused on the Risky Business Project, a joint effort by Steyer, former treasury secretary Hank Paulson, and other public figures to get the business community on board with restrictions on carbon emissions.
The memo suggested that Lew ask how the project could “best help the Administration generate support for its climate initiatives” and what federal policies could force “investors and other private actors internalize the risks that are outlined in this report.”
According to the memo, “expected U.S. government participants” in the meeting included senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and John Podesta, the president’s senior climate and energy aide and the former president of the Steyer-backed Center for American Progress.
Four other White House officials were expected to attend. It was not immediately clear which of the officials ended up at the meeting. The Treasury Department referred requests for comment to the White House. The White House did not respond to a request for comment by press time. The Risky Business Project also did not respond to a request for comment.
Treasury initially refused to release the memo when the conservative Patriots Foundation requested it under the Freedom of Information Act last June. The Foundation sued in September to force its release.
In January, Treasury agreed to furnish the document, but it redacted the entire memo. After additional legal wrangling, the department released another copy that also included significant redactions, including suggested questions for Lew to pose to Steyer and other attendees.
It blacked out Steyer’s headshot.
On February 18, Treasury finally produced a less-redacted version of the memo that the Foundation said satisfied its FOIA request. It settled with Treasury and the suit was dismissed.
The document’s release provides additional details on a meeting that drew criticism even from Democrats over the optics of inviting a high-dollar Democratic donor to a closed-door meeting with senior White House staffers.
"If a Republican president did the same thing with the Koch brothers, we would skewer them," a House Democrat told the Washington Examiner in June. "If you're going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk."
At the time of the meeting, Steyer was racking up more than $73 million in political expenditures designed to maintain Democratic control of the U.S. Senate. He was by far the largest contributor to independent political groups during the 2014 cycle.
While Steyer put up big bucks to support the president’s party, he received extensive access to Obama and other White House officials. Logs show that he has visited the White House 14 times since 2009, including a number of visits in 2014.
“It shows Tom Steyer has not just got the ear of the president, but he clearly has the president’s attention,” Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the left-wing group Public Citizen told E&E News in January. “That’s what money does buy; it buys access.”
Steyer is expected to be a financial force during the 2016 election cycle. His Super PAC, NextGen Climate Action, will spend “whatever it takes” to achieve its political goals, according to Chris Lehane, Steyer’s top political strategist.