Standing in a shuttered General Motors plant in Wilmington, Del., Vice President Biden proclaimed that a half-billion-dollar Department of Energy loan would transform the idled site into a production line for electric cars.
"Folks, we're making a bet," Biden said on Oct. 27, 2009. "We're making a bet on the future, we're making a bet on the American people, we're making a bet on the market, we're making a bet on innovation."
The announcement that the plant would re-open followed a heavy lobbying push by Delaware politicians from both parties, who cited the news as a sign of industry's turnaround. In September 2009, Republican Rep. Mike Castle wrote directly to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, saying the Fisker proposal had "great merit," and urging Chu to give the company "careful consideration" for the loan.
The governor and state politicians took turns, along with Biden, to proclaim the project to cheering blue-collar workers clad in jeans, caps and jackets. They said it would produce thousands of jobs and have cars rolling off the line by next year. Fisker said he remains convinced those jobs will come. While he has hired marketing, design and engineering teams in the U.S., the auto plant jobs in Wilmington right now number about 100.
The Department of Energy loan to Fisker closed in April 2010, and again Biden took center stage in a department statement announcing the loan. "The story of Fisker is a story of ingenuity of an American company, a commitment to innovation by the U.S. government and the perseverance of the American auto industry," said the vice president.
ABC News sent questions to the White House Monday and requested an interview with the vice president. Biden was not made available, but an official in his office said "the Office of the Vice President did not encourage the Department of Energy to choose any particular company over any other but, like others in the Administration, supported the Department's loan program and the creation of car manufacturing jobs in the United States."
Energy Department officials have been steadfast that politics never entered the picture and each project was screened by professionals and secured on the merits. And executives from Tesla and Fisker said they won government support because their projects had the best shot at success. They said the involvement of well-connected figures in their companies should not suggest they attempted to use special influence to secure the loans.
Both companies have political heavyweights behind them. One of Fisker's biggest financial supporters, records show, is the California venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The firm financially supports numerous green-tech firms, records show.
Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr, a California billionaire who made a fortune investing in Google, hosted President Obama at a February dinner for high-tech executives at his secluded estate south of San Francisco. Doerr and Kleiner Perkins executives have contributed more than $1 million to federal political causes and campaigns over the last two decades, primarily supporting Democrats. Doerr serves on Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Doerr has not replied to interview requests since March.
Former Vice President Al Gore is another Kleiner Perkins senior partner. Gore could not be reached for comment.
"Their major venture investor is Kleiner Perkins, who has Al Gore as a partner and is certainly politically connected in general," said industry observer Sexton. "Whether that played a role or not is up to the DOE to explain."
Tesla brings political pull, as well. A former Tesla board member, Steve Westly, is an Obama bundler who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the president in 2008 and for his 2012 re-election campaign. His Westly Group was also a financial supporter of Tesla Motors until Tesla went public in 2010, and Westly continues to back the company. Westly has declined interview requests since February, but has appeared in multiple conferences, forums and TV interviews publicly praising Tesla Motors.
Tesla's founder and CEO, Elon Musk, is a hearty political contributor who has primarily backed Democrats, including Obama. According to published reports, another Tesla investor is Nick Pritzker, a donor to Obama and a cousin of Penny Pritzker, the national finance chair of Obama's 2008 campaign.
O'Connell, the Tesla executive, said political muscle played no role in the company's award of the $465 million in loans, noting that the initial application was filed under Bush -- though landed under Obama.