President Obama’s record of rewarding political donors with taxpayer dollars and plum administration posts is facing a new round of scrutiny thanks to GOP challenger Mitt Romney’s effort to make it a central issue of the campaign.
"[President Obama] thinks it's his right to give taxpayer money to those who have supported him financially," former Gov. John Sununu (R., N.H.) said Tuesday on a conference call hosted by the Romney campaign. "It's insulting to hard-working entrepreneurs who really do create jobs."
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The most publicized instance of so-called "crony capitalism"—investing taxpayer dollars in firms tied to political donors—is the failed solar panel company Solyndra. The Fremont, Calif., firm was the first to receive a taxpayer-backed loan guarantee from the Department of Energy (DOE) in September 2009, worth more than $530 million. The funding for the loan was allocated in the controversial stimulus package passed earlier that year.
Obama bundler George Kaiser was a major stakeholder in Solyndra through his Kaiser Family Foundation, and made several trips to the White House in March 2009 to meet with senior administration officials. In July 2009, Kaiser bragged about securing face time with "all the key players in the West Wing of the White House," as well as his "almost unique advantage" when it came to steering taxpayer funds toward his pet causes.
"There’s never been more money shoved out of the government’s door in world history, and probably never will be again, than in the last few months and in the next 18 months," Kaiser told members of the Tulsa Rotary Club. "And our selfish parochial goal is to get as much as it for Tulsa and Oklahoma as we possibly can."
Although things did not pan out for Solyndra—the company filed for bankruptcy in September 2011—Kaiser can expect to see a better return on his investment than American taxpayers. As part of an agreement to restructure Solyndra’s loan agreement in 2010, Obama’s DOE granted priority status to private investors like Kaiser with respect to the first $75 million recovered in the event of the firm’s bankruptcy, a move that many suspect violated federal law.
Taxpayers, meanwhile, are unlikely to recover much of the money invested on their behalf.
Emails uncovered by Congressional investigators reveal that Solyndra helped secure its $535 million loan guarantee with the help of Steve Spinner, another prominent Obama donor. After bundling more than $500,000 for Obama in 2008, Spinner was named to the White House transition team and later served as "chief strategic operations officer" of the DOE loan program that funded Solyndra.
Spinner’s wife Allison worked for a law firm that represented Solyndra and several other green energy outfits that applied for taxpayer funding. Records show that her firm, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, received $2.4 million in federal funds in legal fees associated with Solyndra’s loan application.
Spinner left the administration in September 2010 to become a senior fellow at the left-wing Center for American Progress, and has already bundled more than $500,000 for the president’s reelection campaign.
Solyndra is just one of many examples of quid pro quo in the DOE loans program; even the liberal Washington Post editorial board has described it as a "real scandal."
"You can call it crony capitalism or venture socialism—but by whatever name, the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program privatizes profits and socializes losses," the paper wrote in November 2011.
More than 70 percent of DOE and loans under Obama went to Democratic donors and bundlers, Peter Schweizer reported in Throw Them All Out.
A confidential 2009 memo authored by former White House economic adviser Larry Summers paints a damning picture of the administration’s approach to crafting the stimulus package.
"The short-run economic imperative was to identify as many campaign promises or high priority items that would spend out quickly and be inherently temporary," Summers wrote. "The stimulus package is a key tool for advancing clean energy goals and fulfilling a number of campaign commitments."
In several cases, including Solyndra, advancing the president’s green energy agenda went hand in hand with providing financial payoffs to prominent campaign donors.
California investment guru John Doerr, for example, has personally contributed more than $170,000 to Democratic campaigns and committees since 2008, and more than $2 million over the past 20 years. His investment firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), which lists former Vice President Al Gore as a partner, has given more than $1 million to Democrats since 2005.
An early and outspoken advocate for federal investment in "green" technology, Doerr was named to the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board in 2009, where he helped craft the $787 billion stimulus package. Of the 27 companies list in KPCB’s "green-tech" portfolio, 16 received some form of taxpayer support.
Another prominent Obama donor who has benefitted handsomely from the president’s policies is Steve Westly. A frequent guest at White House events and state dinners, Westley served as California co-chair and a National Finance Committee member of Obama’s 2008 campaign and currently sits on the DOE’s Energy Advisory Board.
He has bundled at least $700,000 in campaign donations for Obama since 2008 and personally given about $260,000 to Democratic campaigns and committees since 2007.
Westly’s investment firm, the Westly Group, had a financial stake in four green energy companies that received more than half a billion dollars in federal funding in 2009. The group’s website once touted the firm as being "uniquely positioned" to take advantage of the influx of taxpayer funding in green technology, and currently notes that "To win in the clean technology space, a company must navigate the halls of government."
Westly has openly acknowledged that knowledge of federal policy is key to investing in green technology. In response to a reporter’s question about which green energy companies he likes to invest in, Westly said: "Who cares what I think. Let’s talk about ‘what does Obama like? Here’s what he likes,’ because here’s where the federal government is putting money. And let me tell you, whatever he likes, that’s what I like."
One of the companies Obama "liked" was the Exelon Corporation, a Chicago-based utility and recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus funding. One of the most politically connected firms in the country, Exelon employees have made up one of President Obama’s top sources of campaign contributions throughout his career.
Exelon was Obama’s fourth-largest campaign donor when he ran for Senate in 2004, contributing more than $73,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The firm donated $326,000 to Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. The firm has ties to several top Obama bundlers, as well as to Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod and former White House chief of staff and current Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel.
As the Washington Free Beacon reported in June, an Exelon subsidiary was recently awarded a lucrative 20-year contract to install solar panels manufactured by federal inmates on government facilities.
Such cronyism is not exclusive to the green energy sector. DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has bundled at least $500,000 for Obama’s reelection campaign, and is the largest contributor to Priorities USA, the Obama-allied Super PAC.
The Securities and Exchange Commission is currently investigating whether DreamWorks made illegal payments to Chinese officials in order to secure exclusive film rights in the communist nation. The New York Times reported that Katzenberg, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, were intimately involved in negotiating an agreement under which China would up its annual quota of foreign-produced films from 20 to 34 and allow studios to keep a greater percentage of box-office revenue.
DreamWorks announced a $2 billion deal with the Chinese government in February to build a production studio in Shanghai just days after Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping held an extensive meeting with Barack Obama in Washington, D.C.
Obama’s penchant for crony capitalism, critics say, explains his comment over the weekend that "If you’ve got a business, you did not build that—somebody else made that happen."
"He thinks that government is there to pick who should succeed and who should fail," Sununu said on the conference call. "It’s in his political genes."
"Big government lends itself to big cronyism," said political analyst Jay Cost. "In Obama’s legislation, we see vast payoffs to interest groups that have benefitted the Democratic Party."