The Green Tape Letters

Obama Energy official coordinated message with Center for American Progress, emails show

Silver, Spinner
September 14, 2012

An Obama administration official actively collaborated with a prominent left-wing think tank in 2011 to advance the president’s green energy agenda, in possible violation of federal law, emails obtained by the Washington Free Beacon show.

The emails reveal that in July 2011, Steve Spinner, then a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP), sought and received guidance from Jonathan Silver, executive director of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) loans program, regarding a CAP editorial urging Congress to expand funding for the program and permanently establish a Clean Energy Deployment Administration (CEDA), or "green bank," to further fund clean energy projects.

Before joining CAP in 2010, Spinner worked with Silver as a "chief strategic operations officer" in the DOE. Spinner and his wife Allison have raised more than $2.2 million for Obama over the past two years, and almost $4.4 million since 2007, according to the New York Times. The Spinners are the president’s tenth largest bundlers for the current cycle.

His discussion with Silver took place over several days via Spinner and Silver’s personal email accounts. The emails also indicate that the two were in touch multiple times over the phone during that time.

"Want to tell you about a CAP piece we’re submitting to Editorial tomorrow and releasing mid-week," Spinner wrote to Silver on the evening of July 10, 2011. "Want to make sure it reflects your goals and best thinking."

Spinner sent a draft of the piece shortly thereafter, which Silver read and responded to in a lengthy email containing a number of suggested revisions. Nearly all of them were incorporated into the final draft published days later.

"Point out that [the loans] program enjoys widespread support. Even chamber [the U.S. Chamber of Commerce] supports a green bank," he advised. "Note that a build up of [CEDA] requires a transition period."

Silver also suggested that Spinner should advocate for additional taxpayer funding for more common green energy technology, not just the most innovative, in order to "leapfrog the old energy model."

Spinner was very appreciative of the recommendations, and indicated that he would let Silver sign off on the final version.

"[T]his is very helpful, Jonathan. [T]hanks so much," Spinner replied July 10. "[W]ill include all comments and tighten. Will send it to you one more time before public…"

Silver followed up on July 12, noting that he had a "favor" to ask of Spinner regarding the CAP piece.

"What’s up?" Spinner replied. "Give me a call. Happy to read the ‘final’ version."

Silver wrote back with a "request" that CAP specifically advocate the transfer of his team at the loans program to run the CEDA.

"I’d love to see documents like this call for moving the current management of the loan program over to run the [CEDA], because they demonstrated that, even under duress, they could make it work," he wrote. "Think that can get worked in? Its [sic] helpful on many levels (gives me far greater clout to push for the right tools while I’m there)."

Spinner responded that the report was "glowing with praise" for Silver’s team and the transfer recommendation was "certainly strongly implied." But he was willing to go further.

"Would you rather I be more blatant?" he wrote.

"To a certain point," Silver replied. He then offered an entire paragraph for Spinner’s consideration.

‘The leadership of the loan guarantee program has made a cumbersome system work, with nearly 40 billion in loans initiated, nearly half in the past 8 months. We would like to see continuity and, given the record, believe their understanding on the needs of the clean energy sector and their expertise in finance make them the safest way to ensure both continuity and that the program gets up and running quickly.’

Spinner informed Silver that he had submitted the piece to the CAP editors "with changes added as appropriate," and noted in a later email that Silver would "like the additions."

In fact, the second portion of the Silver’s suggested paragraph was directly incorporated into Spinner’s final draft:

Given their record over the past few years the Loan Guarantee Program team possesses an expertise in finance to make it a safe and efficient way to ensure both continuity and that CEDA gets up and running quickly.

Silver thanked Spinner, who went on to note the mutual goals of CAP and the Obama administration with respect to promoting green energy.

"That’s why you’re doing what you’re doing and so am I to try to get future [appropriations] and set up a CEDA type vehicle," Spinner wrote on July 13, the date his CAP piece was published.

Spinner also recounted how Silver had him, or CAP founder John Podesta, to "reach out" to the White House on green energy issues.

Spinner wrote that he did not know if Podesta, who co-chaired the Obama-Biden Transition Team, had done so, but noted, "I’ve been following up every two weeks with [the White House] with the 2 senior advisors that I’m friends with," and had "complained" to senior White House officials about some economists within the administration and their reluctance to be more aggressive on green energy.

The primary thrust of Silver’s recommendations appears to have been a desire to instill a sense of urgency around the DOE loans program, which was scheduled to—and ultimately did—lose its authorization in October 2011.

Silver was attempting to pressure Congress and other branches of the administration, such as the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, to back reauthorization as well as the creation of a "green bank."

"Leverage disappears October 1," he told Spinner. "Need to move all of this now."

Spinner seems to have taken this sentiment to heart, noting the "herculean" challenges facing the "embattled" program and altering the headline, from "Don’t Stall the Clean Energy Economy" to "Don’t Let Clean Energy Funding Die on the Vine."

After Spinner sent him a link to the piece on July 13, Silver wrote back: "A great piece. Thanks! I think we are making progress."

"[G]lad you liked it (especially the conclusion section!)" Spinner replied, referring to the portion of the article that Silver was most instrumental in drafting.

A former official in the George W. Bush administration told the Free Beacon that such unmediated collusion between a senior federal official and a prominent think tank was uncommon.

"It’s certainly unusual, but not surprising given CAP’s close relationship with the White House and the Democratic Party," said the former official.

Scott Coffina, a former White House associate counsel who handled political legal issues for the Bush administration, told the Free Beacon that Silver’s actions may have violated federal law prohibiting agency employees from political lobbying.

Though no individual has ever been successfully prosecuted for such an offense, the law clearly forbids the use of federal funds—including employee salaries—for lobbying efforts to promote administration policy.

The Department of Justice has determined that although direct contact between federal officials and members of Congress and their staff is exempted under law, grassroots lobbying campaigns are not.

The DOE acknowledges these lobbying restrictions on its website.

Silver’s participation and contribution to the CAP editorial, which was subsequently disseminated to CAP supporters, may have constituted a grassroots campaign to influence federal policy, Coffina said.

"I think this does cross that line," said Coffina, who is currently a partner at Drinker Biddle and Reath. "It certainly gets right up to the line. If this is a grassroots campaign this violates the law—and it really seems to be."

Formerly a criminal statute, the law was amended in 2002. Violators now face a civil penalty of up to $100,000 and possible termination of employment.

CAP does not explicitly describe itself as a grassroots organization, but the former counsel said that its self-description might also meet the criteria.

"We shape the national debate. We share our point of view with everyone who can put our ideas into practice and effect positive change," the group writes on its website. "That means online, on campus, in the media, on the shop floor, in faith communities, and in the boardroom."

Founded in 2003, the Center for American Progress aims to "critique the policy that stems from conservative values" and "shape the national debate." It remains an influential actor in the Democratic political establishment and a tireless advocate for taxpayer-funded green energy programs.

In September 2008 the think tank authored a report titled "Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy" that included many recommendations ultimately incorporated into President Obama’s controversial $800 billion stimulus package. 

Silver’s efforts to extend funding for the DOE loans program ultimately failed, suffering a fatal blow when solar panel manufacturer Solyndra filed for bankruptcy on August 31, 2011, amid allegations of scandal.

Emails uncovered by congressional investigators revealed that Spinner, while at the DOE, was intimately involved in helping Solyndra secure a federally backed $535 million loan, despite an ethics agreement stipulating that he would "not participate in any discussion" regarding the firm’s loan application.

Spinner’s wife Allison was a partner at the California law firm representing Solyndra that received $2.4 million from the company for its work.

Silver went to great lengths to keep Solyndra afloat after the company encountered financial difficulties, including contacting the General Services Administration in an effort to get Solyndra solar panels installed on government facilities.

Spinner’s CAP report cited Solyndra as an example of the loans program’s "outright success."

"Even the most controversial loan guarantee recipient—Solyndra, a solar manufacturer—is seeing an operational turnaround, as recently reported by Time Magazine," he wrote in the piece.

Silver left the DOE in October 2011 after the loans programs authorization expired. That was around the same time Spinner left CAP.

Spinner’s piece was co-authored by Richard Caperton, CAP’s director of clean energy investment, a former policy fellow at the Alliance for Climate Protection, and a "native of rural America."

Caperton emailed the piece to an internal mailing list comprised of "Loan Guarantee Program advocates," and urged recipients to "circulate this to anyone who you think would be interested," according to documents obtained by the Free Beacon.

The Free Beacon also obtained an email between David Leiter and Bryan Stockton, the president and director of government relations, respectively, of ML Strategies, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm. Both are registered to lobby on green energy issues.

Leiter forwarded Caperton’s email to Silver, as well as another email from Stockton regarding the legislative prospects for the creation of the CEDA, which Stockton sent with the subject line: "in case you want to share with Reicher," most likely a reference to Dan Reicher, the executive director of the Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University, who served in both the Clinton Administration and on the Obama-Biden Transition Team.

Leiter and Stockton registered to lobby Congress on behalf of Amonix, Inc., in June 2011, according to public records.

That solar panel manufacturer recently laid off nearly two-thirds of its workforce despite receiving more than $20 million in federal tax credits and grants, and was one of several taxpayer financed green energy companies—including Solyndrawith ties to prominent Obama fundraisers.

More than 70 percent of DOE grants and loans under Obama went to companies backed by Democratic donors and bundlers, Peter Schweizer reported in Throw Them All Out.

Silver, Caperton, the Department of Energy, and a CAP communications representative did not return requests for comment.