Updated, Sept. 30, 2011 at 10:24 am with Energy Dept. response -
It obviously seemed like a good idea at the time to some Obama administration officials to have a major fundraiser for the president working inside the Energy Department to supervise the career employees who reviewed the applications for federally backed green-energy loans.
In hindsight, however, especially after the failure of solar-panel maker Solyndra which received a $535 million loan and the attendant scrutiny, the administration clearly opened itself up for criticism and suspicions of wrongdoing.
A report by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity on the ties between the fundraisers and the Energy Department loan program underscores the point.
While there has been no publicly disclosed evidence of illegality, at the very least there is certainly the problem of appearances.
The report focuses on a particular Obama fundraiser who worked for the Energy Department until last year and his wife, a lawyer with a law firm that represented companies seeking federally guaranteed green energy loans.
Several of Barack Obama's top campaign supporters went from soliciting political contributions to working from within the Energy Department as it showered billions in taxpayer-backed stimulus money on alternative energy firms, ABC News and iWatch News have learned.
One of them was Steven J. Spinner, a high-tech consultant and energy investor who raised at least $500,000 for the candidate. He became one of Energy Secretary Steven Chu's key loan program advisors while his wife's law firm represented a number of companies that had applied for loans.
Again, there've been no publicly disclosed evidence that laws were violated. And as the report informs us, Energy Department ethics lawyers approved the arrangement so long as certain conditions were met that were aimed at avoiding actual problems.
Responding to the report, the Energy Department issued a fact sheet. A key passage:
Some media outlets have asked us questions about the role that Steve Spinner played during his time at the Energy Department. He was an advisor on our Recovery Act team tasked with monitoring the progress of Recovery Act implementation, but had no role in making decisions on whether particular applications were approved.
But appearances of cronyism can be just as damning as the real thing, especially when the administration being accused of it offered a vision of a cleaner government. Another excerpt from the ABC News/Center for Public Integrity report:
While it is common for presidents to reward top donors with ambassadorships or other political posts, the Sunlight Foundation's Bill Allison said it is unusual to see a major donor such as Spinner given a position inside a relatively obscure government loan program.
"For an administration that won't hire lobbyists to be hiring fundraisers for that role, that seems to be a bit of a contradiction," Allison said. "Obviously you want to keep all people who are involved in political influence out of positions of responsibility." As a presidential candidate, Obama had said lobbyists "won't find a job in my White House," but then dialed that back to "won't dominate [my White House]."
The report is worth a read.