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 Energy Department said Spinner brought experience working with startup companies -- the type of firms lining up for green-energy funding intended to aid the environment and economy.
"Spinner is a Harvard MBA and an experienced business executive with more than 15 years advising innovative start-up companies in the technology, media and retail industries. He advised over 50 start-up companies over the last 10 years," DOE's LaVera wrote.
Both Spinner and Westly were among a California contingent of green-energy executives who put their money, and energy, behind Obama.
When President Obama won the White House in 2008, Spinner was one of several Silicon Valley executives to help vault him to victory. Spinner was one of just 52 fundraisers to raise more than half a million dollars for the president. He served the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team, focused on technology innovation and government reform.
In February 2009, San Francisco Magazine quoted several local Obama backers reflecting on the campaign.
"In May, about 120 of us had an Entrepreneurs for Obama video teleconference with Barack. Afterward, Steve Westly and some other senior Silicon Valley executives stayed and put forth their ideas on tech issues and initiatives and the campaign," Spinner was quoted as saying. "I really loved that I could help differentiate this campaign's technology from any others in history. I knew most of the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, and if there was something good, I could bubble it up to the campaign."
In April 2009, Spinner joined a Department of Energy poised to unleash billions of dollars, becoming a "small business loan guarantee advisor," a title that later shifted to "loan program advisor," focused on financing start-up green energy firms and cutting-edge car makers. He held the job for 17 months.
The move turned a hearty presidential supporter and frequent energy investor into a DOE insider.
Spinner's financial disclosure forms showed that he was an active investor in energy-related companies. On his final disclosure report signed Oct. 15, 2010, Spinner listed at least 15 purchases and 14 stock sales of energy-related stock earlier that year.
An initial review of financial disclosure records by iWatch News and ABC News showed one investment in an energy firm whose subsidiary received funds from the Energy Department while he was working there, and investments in three others that landed Energy Department support after he sold his stakes. Energy officials said they considered his portfolio small enough to fall "within the Executive Branch-wide de minimis exception for interests in securities."
Spinner reported making $12,155 from a 2008 investment in Atheros Communications. In June 2010, Atheros announced it would receive up to $4.5 million in DOE grant funding. DOE said Spinner sold his Atheros stock before joining the department.
On another form, Spinner reported selling off his $1,001-$15,000 investment in Air Products & Chemicals Inc. in February of 2010, four months before Air Products announced it landed $253 million in stimulus funding. "To the best of our knowledge, he had no involvement" with the award, a company official said.
Spinner invested $1,001-$15,000 in Exelon. A subsidiary of Exelon was awarded a $200 million DOE grant in late 2009. A spokeswoman said the company never dealt with Spinner as their grant was being considered.
His wife's role in a law firm representing corporate clients seeking federal funds prompted Energy Department ethics officials to take a close look, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The law firm, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, has represented several companies that had applied for Energy Department loans and loan guarantees.
On August 18, 2009, four months into his tenure at DOE, Spinner received an ethics opinion involving that connection. Matt Rogers, then the senior advisor to the Energy Secretary, wrote that Spinner could continue in his duties, but "not participate in any discussion regarding any application involving Wilson [Sonsini]." The opinion said his wife would forgo pay "earned as a result of its representation of applicants in programs within your official duties."
Rogers said Spinner's conflict was minimized because his role at DOE was supervisory -- "to embrace strategic objectives, inquire on overall progress of applications to the program staff, anticipate and help senior management clear any institutional roadblocks to accomplishment of the program's objectives."