Did Obama Administration Play Favorites With Energy Loans?

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Steve Westly Becomes An Obama Bundler

The former California state controller has a long history in politics. Westly began campaigning and raising money for Obama in 2007, just as he was starting to build The Westly Group, a venture capital firm specializing in start-up companies with fresh ideas for clean technology. By Election Day, Westly had joined the elite circle of "bundlers," the candidate's top group of fundraisers who used their connections to gather more than $500,000 for Obama's campaign. After the election, he visited the White House to "discuss potential opportunities for service within the Administration related to green energy policy" and to receive a briefing from a top Obama aide on technology initiatives the administration was undertaking, according to Cherlin.

Westly took a seat on the Secretary of Energy's advisory panel in 2010 and used his website to alert future clients to his newfound connections.

"We believe that with the Obama administration, and other governments … committing hundreds of billions of dollars to clean tech, there has never been a better time to launch clean tech companies," his company website says. "The Westly Group is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this surge of interest and growth."

Companies backed by Westly's venture capital firm first started seeing the fruits of that unique position with the $465 million loan that helped Tesla Motors launch development of an electric sedan that is expected to list for $54,700. Four months later came a $700,000 federal grant, crucial to expanding a recycling program in Philadelphia. In December 2009, the Department of Energy awarded stimulus grants of $20.4 million for a bio-refinery and $25 million to develop a diesel substitute through the fermentation of sweet sorghum.

Then, in February, the Obama administration announced plans to stimulate sales of electric cars by offering consumers a $7,500 federal rebate at the dealer level. Stock in Tesla Motors, which went public last year, rose 6 percent with the news. Westly sat on Tesla's board for more than two years, and though his firm recently sold its nearly 2.5 million shares, he personally remains a shareholder. "I think Tesla's best days are ahead of it," he told Bloomberg West TV March 11.

Eric Wesoff, a senior analyst who specializes in renewable energy and financing for Greentech Media, which covers news and analysis about the green tech market, told the Center for Public Integrity that pulling strings with the administration "might actually be part of [Westly's] business plan."

"One of the things the firm pledges that differentiates The Westly Group from other venture capitalists is they help companies navigate the political landscape," Wesoff said.

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The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, investigative reporting outlet in Washington, D.C.

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