Sen. Reid and Obama donors back company seeking $450 million in U.S. money
WASHINGTON — Top Democratic fundraisers and lobbyists with links to the White House are behind a proposed wind farm in Texas that stands to get $450 million in stimulus money, even though a Chinese company would operate the farm and its turbines would be built in China.
The farm’s backers also have close ties with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who, at the height of his hard-fought re-election bid this fall, helped blunt congressional criticism over stimulus dollars possibly going to create jobs in China by endorsing a proposal by the Chinese company to build a factory in his home state. Although his campaign received thousands of dollars in donations from the wind farm’s backers and Reid stood on stage with them at a campaign event they hosted, his office declined to answer any questions about the wind farm’s organizers or their plans for Nevada.
The wind farm, first announced more than a year ago, would consist of 300 2-megawatt wind turbines, each perched atop a 26-story-tall steel tower and spinning three blades — each half the length of a football field. The farm would span three counties and 36,000 acres in West Texas land best known for its oil. Dubbed the Spinning Star wind farm, the project’s 600-megawatt capacity is, theoretically, enough to power 180,000 American homes and would be the sixth-largest wind farm in the country.
It is being planned by an unusual joint partnership between the U.S. Renewable Energy Group, a Dallas investment firm with strong ties to Washington and the Democratic Party, and A-Power Energy Generation Systems, an upstart Chinese supplier of wind turbines. Filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicate the Chinese are bringing financing and the turbines.
What the Americans are supplying is the local know-how and political clout in Washington, where decisions on how to distribute billions in loan guarantees, stimulus grants and financial incentives are made.
The clock is ticking for Spinning Star: To claim the stimulus grant it must arrange its financing and begin work on the wind farm by Dec. 31. Besides the $450 million stimulus grant, A-Power’s SEC filings indicate the joint-venture also will pursue a Department of Energy-backed loan guarantee. According to the SEC filings, the project is waiting to hear if it will receive the loan guarantee before financing will follow to build the turbines.
Powerful donors to Democrats
The investment group’s public face is often Cappy McGarr, a wealthy Texas philanthropist, investor and longtime fixture in Democratic politics, who has given heavily to Democratic candidates across the country and was an early backer of President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Joining McGarr in Dallas is Ed Cunningham, a former executive for several large Western entertainment companies in China, a 2002 Democratic senatorial candidate and a former member of Obama’s national finance committee.
A-Power Energy Generation SystemUnited Steelworkers union President Leo Gerard, front left, poses with leaders of the Texas wind farm project. At center is Jinxiang Lu, chairman and CEO of the Chinese company A-Power Energy Generation Systems, with a leader of the investment group for the project, Cappy McGarr, a Texas philanthropist, investor and longtime fixture in Democratic politics, who has given heavily to Democratic candidates across the country and was an early backer of President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. At rear, from left, are three other leaders of the investment group, lobbyist John O’Hanlon, Democratic fundraiser Ed Cunningham and, mostly obscured, lobbyist Moses Boyd.
Two registered lobbyists with a long history of involvement in Democratic politics, G. John O’Hanlon and Moses Boyd, are the group’s anchors in Washington. O’Hanlon has been a party operative since the 1980s — a protégé of Democratic heavyweight Terry McAuliffe — and has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic causes. Boyd is a former senior Democratic Capitol Hill staffer turned lobbyist.
McGarr married into Democratic Party royalty — his wife’s uncle is legendary Democratic power broker Robert Strauss — and has made his own name as a big-time donor to the party and candidates across the country. McGarr and his wife, Janie Strauss McGarr, have given more than $375,000 to various Democratic candidates and political action committees since 2006, according to Federal Election Commission records. That doesn’t include the $50,000 he donated to Obama’s inauguration and $50,000 to $100,000 in donations from others that he “bundled” for the Obama campaign.
All told, these four and their spouses have given more than $1.8 million in campaign donations since 1990, with McGarr and his wife accounting for more than half of that.
“That would place them among the top 100 donors of hard money overall,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent research group that tracks campaign finance and how it affects elections and public policy.
The important question, however, is not how much they have given, Krumholz said, but “What does this buy them with each individual target of their largesse?”
The money that McGarr “bundled” in the last election — essentially working on a volunteer basis to solicit money for the Obama presidential campaign — is particularly significant, she said. It’s an important and valuable role to play in a campaign, she said, and one that typically is acknowledged.
“In some cases,” Krumholz said, bundlers, “maybe are just making very little effort and are ideologically driven, but in many, many cases, historically, these people are looking for access to tap in on. It should not be presumed that this is uninterested work.”
White House visits
McGarr’s connections and party loyalty do seem to open doors for him in Washington — and at the White House. McGarr visited the White House at least eight times in the administration’s first 18 months in office, according to visitor records disclosed by the White House. (These disclosures are voluntary, and do not include meetings held with staff outside of the White House, telephone contacts or records that the Obama administration has not released from its first nine months.) Three of the visits were for large social functions hosted by the president, but four were occasions when he met with senior White House staff and presidential advisers.
On Sept. 15, 2009, just weeks before he announced his new renewable energy venture that would tap Obama’s stimulus plan for hundreds of millions of dollars, McGarr met with Pete Rouse, one of three “senior advisers” to the president. Rouse was named acting chief-of-staff in October 2010 after Rahm Emmanuel announced his departure. Rouse was formerly the chief-of-staff for former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle. McGarr is the chairman of Daschle’s political action committee.
Obama White House won’t answer questions
Liz Oxhorn, a White House spokesperson for the Recovery Act, declined to answer questions about what was discussed during that meeting or any other — including whether Rouse and other White House officials know about the Spinning Star project or were asked to intervene on its behalf.
“Competitive Recovery Act funds are only awarded by experts at federal agencies following an internal merit-based review process,” she said in an e-mail, denying the White House had intervened in the process to award a loan guarantee.
Robert F. Bukaty / AP fileBlades of a Maine windmill funded by the stimulus program.
Patrick Dorton, a spokesperson for U.S. Renewable Energy Group, the U.S. partner in the windmill project, said neither McGarr nor any other member of the group ever asked the White House to intervene on behalf of their project.
“US-REG has not asked any official in any branch of government to advocate on behalf of their project in the DOE loan guarantee process,” Dorton said. “This is a project that stands on its own merits.”
Most of McGarr’s visits were related to his work as executive producer of the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Music, which honored Stevie Wonder in 2009 and Paul McCartney this June, Dorton said in an e-mailed statement. Dorton also said a meeting at the White House in January attended by Boyd was for his involvement with a group lobbying for a renewable energy standard — a proposed federal requirement that a certain percentage of electricity come from renewable sources — but neither US-REG nor Spinning Star were mentioned.
A $245 million ‘developer fee’
According to Dorton’s statement, the four partners in US-REG each brought particular strengths to the deal: Cunningham has negotiated business deals in China; McGarr has worked in private equity; and O’Hanlon and Boyd have experience with green energy. That all four men are prominent in Washington and Democratic circles has nothing to do with their partnership, Dorton said.
Together, McGarr, Cunningham, O’Hanlon and Boyd will own 51 percent of the Spinning Star wind farm, according to the joint venture agreement filed with the SEC by A-Power. But to earn that ownership stake in a project whose ultimate value is estimated at $2 billion, they won’t have to contribute any significant financial investment of their own.
What US-REG must do to earn its “developer fee,” which SEC documents suggest could be worth as much as $244.8 million, is secure “all project rights, beneficial contracts, permits, permit applications and Consultant Information.”
At an Oct. 29 press conference to announce the new joint venture, the top Chinese A-Power executive made it clear what each company in the deal needed to do to make their new project go forward.