Central to both ads is a claim that Obama gave “$16.4 billion … to companies either run by or primarily owned by Obama financial backers.” But we find that figure is both inflated and from a partisan source that Crossroads obscures with deceptive attribution.
The ad cites Newsweek as the source of the figure, but the magazine was just publishing an excerpt from the book “Throw Them All Out,” by conservative writer Peter Schweizer. A former foreign policy adviser for Sarah Palin and speech-writing consultant for the George W. Bush administration, Schweizer is now a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution.
In checking Schweizer’s $16.4 billion claim, we found it to be too high by nearly $6 billion. In his book, Schweizer lists 25 companies he says were headed by “Obama bundlers, large donors and supporters” who he said received a total of $16.4 billion in loan guarantees.
Schweizer says in his book that all of that came from the Department of Energy’s 1705 program (which awarded stimulus dollars for renewable energy systems, electric power transmission systems and leading-edge biofuels projects). But by our count, only seven of the 25 companies on Schweizer’s list got 1705 loan guarantees. And they totaled about $3.7 billion, not $16.4 billion.
We did find that some companies on Schweizer’s list got aid from other federal clean-energy programs, but not enough to total $16.4 billion. For example, two firms got DOE loan guarantees through the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) Loan Program. But those companies — Fisker Automotive and Tesla Motors — secured less than $1 billion.
In all, the Department of Energy reported clean energy loans of only about $4.7 billion to firms on Schweizer’s list. Some others on the list got loans or grants through other programs with the Department of Agriculture and Treasury Department.
There are other problems as well. Four of the companies on Schweizer’s list received conditional commitments for loan guarantees but never ultimately got the money (either because they were unable to provide necessary documentation in time to meet application deadlines, or because they decided to seek private, commercial financing). Schweizer told us he included them because “that doesn’t undermine the point that political connections helped at the federal level.” That may be, but the ad claims the companies received the money, and they did not. Schweizer also claimed Summit Texas Clean Energy got $1.5 billion in federal aid, which isn’t so. In fact, the Department of Energy provided the company $450 million in grants, for a $1.7 billion project financed mostly by industry. Together, those factors inflated Schweizer’s figure by nearly $6 billion.
We asked Schweizer about the problems with his figures. He responded via email: “There are other companies besides those mentioned in the book that got money. It’s not presented as a complete list.” But he did not supply the “complete list” for us to validate.
One more thing: Some of those listed as Obama backers also gave substantial sums to Republicans.
Pay to Play?
The Crossroads ad correctly cites a Washington Post analysis of thousands of memos, company records and internal emails that concluded the green-technology program was “infused with politics at every level.” But the Post story didn’t document any corrupt pay-to-play scheme, as viewers might well be led to think from the ad. Instead, the “politics” described by the Post involved the backing of financially shaky companies to push the administration’s green agenda, not rewarding campaign donors. The story says: “The records do not establish that anyone pressured the Energy Department to approve the Solyndra loan to benefit political contributors.”
There’s a criminal investigation under way of Solyndra’s executives, and Republican-led House investigators are still on the case. So new revelations could emerge in the future. But so far what’s been documented is evidence of questionable business judgments or wishful thinking about the economic viability of solar energy, not of any outright payola or quid pro quo.
A final comment: The sort of exaggerated claims we document here, on both sides, have been common fare in Washington lobbying battles for decades. And in recent years, these deceptive tactics have increasingly spilled out in advertising aimed at the public, in the hope that constituents will be persuaded to pressure their senators and representatives to vote the way the special interests want. So we are launching with this piece a new “Lobby Watch” series. We’ll follow up with other articles as the occasion warrants.
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