Obama-Supporting Law Firm Advised on Failed Fisker Loan

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An international law firm, which gave substantial political donations to President Obama and fellow Democrats over the last three campaign cycles, received its own significant stimulus award to advise on a controversial Department of Energy loan transaction with a struggling electric vehicle manufacturer.

The firm, Debevoise & Plimpton LLC, received $1,842,180 in Recovery Act funds to provide legal advice, conduct due diligence, and review documents for two loans from DOE’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program. One $529 million loan award was to Fisker Automotive to develop and produce two lines of electric vehicles, with plans to create 2,000 new jobs at a renovated General Motors plant in Delaware. After receiving $193 million under that loan, DOE halted payments to Fisker in May 2011 after it failed to reach milestones set out in the agreement. Work on renovations to the Delaware plant was suspended, and the company let go about 65 employees – “green jobs” – earlier this month.

Debevoise provided the same services to DOE for its $5.9 billion loan to Ford Motor Company, to convert five of its factories in the Midwest so they can produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. DOE’s Web site boasts that thanks to the Ford loan, nearly 33,000 employees at the plants will be “converted” to “green” jobs.

Information posted on the Recovery.gov Web site about Debevoise’s services for DOE says its lawyers provided “specialized legal advice and services (a) on programmatic aspects of the ATVM Program and (b) on transactions proposed or consummated under the ATVM Program.” The firm was paid based upon “Direct Productive Labor Hours” under the contract’s terms, commenced work on the loans in April 2009, and was finished by April 2010. The law firm reviewed the Fisker and Ford applications, met with DOE and the auto companies’ personnel, prepared draft term sheets and conditional commitment documents and “negotiation of same,” and conducted due diligence and prepared “due diligence” memoranda.

At the height of its legal services activity for DOE, 1.25 jobs were created that were attributable to Debevoise’s work on the two loans. The firm declined to explain how it billed for its work, citing client confidentiality.

According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, employees of the law firm gave $199,944 to Sen. Barack Obama for his 2008 presidential campaign, compared to $9,650 for Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Over the last three congressional election cycles (two cycles for the presidency, including this year), Debevoise staff members have donated $746,535 to Democrat candidates and political committees, including $284,420 to the Obama campaign. In contrast, Republican candidates and their support groups received $57,451 from employees of the law firm. Debevoise’s media relations manager, Suzanne Elio, is a former Democratic National Committee fundraiser, and top lawyer David Rivkin reportedly served on President Obama’s National Finance Committee, even hosting a fundraiser for presidential candidate Obama in his home in 2007. 

“Our employees donate as they wish,” said Camilla Jenkins, a spokewoman for Debevoise. “The firm has no involvement in their personal choices.”

Also, in what the law firm characterized as “a mistake,” Debevoise had posted on its Web site in May 2009 that it also represented Fisker “in the project financing for design and manufacturing facilities for two models of luxury plug-in hybrid electric cars….” If true, that would have been concurrent with Debevoise’s representation of DOE as it conducted due diligence for Fisker’s loans, and thus raised conflict of interest questions. Inquiries to all three entities – Fisker, Debevoise and DOE – said the statement was an error.

“The fact is that Debevoise does not represent Fisker, and we never did,” Jenkins said.

The degree and nature that Debevoise advised DOE on the Fisker loan is unclear, but failures of “due diligence” and influence of “crony capitalism” were the two major criticisms of Solyndra, in which DOE loaned the solar panel manufacturer $535 million, only to see the company declare bankruptcy late last year. Republicans in Congress and conservative commentators have questioned whether Obama bundler George Kaiser, whose Argonaut Ventures is invested in Solyndra, was able to win approval of the loan thanks to his many White House visits (in addition to those of Solyndra’s top executives). Energy Secretary Steven Chu denied those allegations. 

“We were very thorough in the application of the loan,” Chu told NPR in November, adding, “Certainly no decision we made in the loan program had anything to do with who was investing in the company.”

Nevertheless, similar questions are being raised about DOE’s Fisker loan. Watchdog group Judicial Watch has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit after DOE did not respond to its request for documents related to the loan. Kleiner Perkins, where former Vice President (and global warming guru) Al Gore is a partner, is heavily invested in Fisker, and executives with the firm have contributed more than $1 million over the last two decades to mostly Democratic candidates and causes. Also, like Debevoise, employees of Kleiner Perkins have donated $2.6 million to candidates and political action committees, favoring Democrats over Republicans by a very wide margin.

Representatives of Fisker also increased their lobbying efforts in 2009. Throughout 2009 and 2010 Kleiner Perkins spent $50,000 per quarter lobbying Congress on legislation that was heavy-laden with renewable energy government incentives. Fisker’s own liaison also lobbied Congress, the White House and the Departments of Energy and Defense – spending $190,000 in 2009 – to seek “funds through (the) Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program” that was passed in 2007 by the Democrat Congress and President Bush. Overall Fisker spent $480,000 on firms that employed lobbyist Laura Lovelace, formerly of Goldman Sachs.

Now even a big law firm that supports President Obama and his fellow Democrats have reaped benefits of their “investment” several-fold, with a $1.8 million reward to conduct due diligence on a loan that now looks like it may have been risky. The status of the remaining $336 million of Fisker’s loan that DOE is holding back is still in play, according to company spokesman Roger Ormisher, but he said founder Henrik Fisker would prefer to find more private financing as a substitute. Asked whether the tardiness of delivery of the $102,000 Karma sports sedan was the cause for DOE to hold up the remainder of the loan, Ormisher chuckled.

“Their due diligence is incredibly thorough,” he answered.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center.