Internal emails show that BrightSource Energy, which received the largest federal loan for a solar energy project under President Obama’s stimulus package, leveraged its considerable political connections with top Democratic policymakers to secure its $1.6 billion in taxpayer backing.
BrightSource energy faced a “do-or-die moment,” according to a report in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, as the Energy Department weighed a federal loan for its massive Ivanpah solar farm in the California Mojave Desert.
To spur the administration to approve the loan, BrightSource beefed up its lobbying presence, most notably by hiring Bernie Toon, former chief of staff for then-Senator Joe Biden, to lobby on its behalf. Toon was paid $40,000 for his efforts, according to disclosure forms.
Toon’s connections immediately paid dividends:
On March 9, 2011, just days after being hired, Mr. Toon went to the White House with three BrightSource executives, according to Senate and White House records. There he visited a former colleague, Alan Hoffman, now the top aide to Mr. Biden, whose office was working on green-energy programs, the records show. The White House didn’t make Mr. Hoffman available for comment.
Overall, BrightSource dropped half a million dollars on lobbyists in the run-up to DOE’s decision on the Ivanpah loan.
But its lobbyists were hardly the extent of BrightSource’s connections. Its chairman at the time, John Bryson, is now Obama’s Commerce Secretary. But even before his cabinet post, BrightSource considered leveraging Bryson’s considerable political clout to push Ivanpah approval.
And the company drew up plans to have its chairman, Mr. Bryson, lobby a friend, then-White House Chief of Staff William Daley. On March 7, the company sent the DOE’s loan-program director a proposed letter from Mr. Bryson to Mr. Daley requesting White House intervention, according to emails viewed by the Journal. It read, “We need a commitment from the WH to quarterback loan closure” by March 18.
The company eventually decided against sending that letter after a DOE official confirmed that the Ivanpah deal was on track for approval.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has incoprporated some of these facts into its investigation into DOE’s green energy financing.
But regardless of whether there was any misconduct or inappropriate lobbying by BrightSource or its representatives, these facts underscore one of critics’ chief complaints about political involvement in the economy generally: when government holds the purse strings, those with the most political connections inevitably benefit.
Note: this post has been corrected to reflect the fact that Bryson’s letter to DOE’s loan programs office was never sent.