President Obama’s green energy push is rapidly proving to be a crooked racket. It works like this: Revolving-door political hires rev up subsidy programs that enrich their former employers. Then they cash out themselves, pocketing taxpayer loot while turning out energy products that range from inefficient technologies to total failures. Faster than the turbine on a subsidized wind mill, the “clean-tech” revolving door spins out green bandits who get rich off the subsidies they helped craft.
Cathy Zoi, an Al Gore acolyte, has left her job as assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy to go to work for a new fund that invests in green energy. It was started by Democratic donor George Soros.
Her former “special assistant,” Peter Roehrig, joined DOE’s renewable energy office from the lobbying firm ISG. Roehrig’s bosses at the firm then launched a company, US-REG, seemingly in effort to pocket taxpayer dollars by acting as cutouts for Chinese windmill barons trying to get their hands on stimulus money.
There are plenty of revolving-door green bandits, but the paths of Zoi and Roehrig – both of whom passed through the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office, which was responsible for $16 billion in stimulus money – exemplify how Obama’s stimulus and green-energy initiatives open the door for corruption and patronage.
Zoi’s tenure at EERE was rife with conflicts of interest. Her husband, Robin Roy, is an executive at Serious Materials, a small window manufacturer that boomed when Obama came to office. First, Serious Materials benefited from free advertising by the White House: President Obama praised a new Serious factory in March – before he officially nominated Zoi – and then Vice President Biden made a public visit to a different Serious plant in April, just after her nomination but before her confirmation. Finally, Serious was also the first window company to pocket a stimulus tax credit – worth $584,000 – for investing in new equipment.
Zoi testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in favor of a HOMESTAR program, also known as cash for caulkers, which became another subsidy for Serious.
At the time of her nomination, the couple owned between them 120,000 stock options in Serious Materials, according to her April 2009 personal financial disclosure. She also owned at least $265,000 of stock in a Swiss company called Landis+Gyr that makes “smart meters,” high-tech thermostats that the administration has promoted for saving energy. Pro-free-market writer and lawyer Chris Horner described the conflicts of interest: “Clearly, DoE funding to encourage the adoption of ‘smart meters’ would very likely lead to much increased sales by Landis+Gyr — and a potential windfall for Zoi.”
Now Zoi has left Energy’s EERE, where she advanced and implemented subsidies for renewable energy, and is going to work for a Soros-backed green-tech fund: Silver Lake Kraftwerk, a partnership between Soros Fund Management and Silicon Valley private equity giant Silver Lake.
Zoi’s boss will be veteran tech investor Adam Grosser, who gave more than $50,000 to Democratic candidates last election. Soros said the fund, for which he is employing the former head of the federal Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office, will focus on “developing alternative sources of energy and achieving greater energy efficiency.”
The Soros-Zoi hire not only undermines Obama’s talk about stopping the revolving door, it also undermines the constant liberal refrain that Soros – unlike conservative political donors – is simply funding political causes he believes in, not causes that profit him. The Soros-created Center for American Progress is a leading advocate of green subsidies.
The pedigree of Zoi’s former “special assistant” focused on giving out stimulus money, Peter Roehrig, also deserves scrutiny.
Roehrig, according to an online biography, “helped start US Renewable Energy Group, [US-REG] which has recently made the largest ever U.S.-China joint investment in American renewable energy to date.” After this column first ran, Roehrig told me the biography was incorrect, and that he instead worked as a researcher at K Street lobbying firm Integrated Solutions Group before ISG lobbyists formed US-REG.
A little-noticed report by Russ Choma at MSNBC.com last December showed that US-REG epitomizes the way in which Obama’s green agenda has become a feeding frenzy for the politically connected.
US-REG was founded by K Street lobbyists John O’Hanlon and Moses Boyd and Democratic fundraiser Ed Cunningham, apparently for the sole purpose of winning federal subsidies. The company started a joint-venture with a Chinese wind-power developer, took a 51 percent stake, and applied for stimulus money – while their former researcher, Roehrig, was on the inside, working for Cathy Zoi in DOE.
In any other industry, these conflicts of interest and naked subsidy-suckling would draw a firestorm of media attention about cronyism and corporate welfare. But green bandits like Zoi, Soros, Roehrig, and O’Hanlon, instead are praised as entrepreneurs who are also trying to save the planet. It just shows what you can get away with in this town if you cloak yourself in green.
UPDATE, TUESDAY, MARCH 1: After this column ran, Roehrig responded to my requests for comment. He told me the online bio I had quoted was wrong, and that he was a researcher on energy issues at ISG for a few months before joining DOE. He said US-REG wasn’t founded until after he left ISG. I have updated the above text to reflect this.
Jonathan Fickies/Bloomberg News Whitney Tilson, InterOil bear.
Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg News George Soros, InterOil bull.
Is InterOil a great way to play Asia’s commodity boom or a overhyped company worth a fraction of its $3.4 billion market value?
In recent weeks, the debate has escalated over InterOil, a publicly traded exploration outfit drilling for natural gas in Papua New Guinea.
George Soros loves InterOil. The billionaire hedge fund king’s Soros Fund Management, which manages more than $20 billion, disclosed in a securities filing this month that it had nearly doubled its stake in InterOil. He owns about 5.3 million shares, or about 12 percent of the company. At $300 million, his InterOil stake is the third-largest stock holding in his fund, according to the filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
A spokesman for Soros Fund Management declined to comment on the position. According to securities filings, he began buying the stock in early 2009 at around $33 a share. On Wednesday, InterOil’s shares were trading above $76.
Whitney Tilson hates InterOil. And unlike the Soros fund, Mr. Tilson, who runs the hedge fund firm T2 Partners, isn’t shy about sharing his views. On Nov. 6, in a blast e-mail sent to 2,000 recipients, Mr. Tilson lambasted the company, which he has done periodically — and publicly — over the past year:
“This is a company that has NO RESERVES — not proven, probable or even possible; just a ‘contingent resource estimate’ from a firm that InterOil paid, after shopping among firms — and has NEVER delivered on its countless promises of huge natural resource finds in over 200 press releases over more than 10 years. Sure, there’s gas there — this isn’t Bre-X — but we think there’s only a tiny fraction of what IOC claims.”
Mr. Tilson’s recent tirade came just after InterOil raised $266 million in its first publicly underwritten offering, a deal backed by, among others, Morgan Stanley. He acknowledges that with the capital increase, the short case on Interoil becomes less compelling. InterOil, which has been burning through cash, now has money to finance its capital-intensive exploration business.
Although his hedge funds run only $155 million, Mr.Tilson has carved out a prominent place in the world of stock pickers. A Warren E. Buffett acolyte, Mr. Tilson writes for publications including The Financial Times and runs the Value Investing Congress, a well-attended event where big investors including William A. Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management and David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital Management show up to discuss their best ideas.
Mr. Tilson isn’t concerned that Mr. Soros’s fund is on the other side of his bearish bet. “George Soros is one of the greatest investors of all time, but he’s made his fortune on big macro calls, not stock picks,” Mr. Tilson told DealBook. “And you need to do in-depth research on this company to understand why InterOil’s not all that its promoters crack it up to be.”
InterOil reported a third-quarter loss this week of $14.4 million on sales of $208.5 million, generated largely through an oil refinery business. “Our efforts to monetize our discovered resources have advanced significantly over the past several months,” said Phil Mulacek, the company’s chief executive, in a statement.
A Morgan Stanley analyst raised its earnings estimates on InterOil on Tuesday, saying it was bullish on the stock with an overweight rating and a $135 a share price target.
Mr. Tilson, who first shorted InterOil around $30 a share in April 2009, is licking his wounds but remains resolute. “We think this stock will ultimately go down in history as one of the greatest promotions ever,” Mr. Tilson said. “Yes, there’s natural gas there, but we think only a small fraction of what the company claims and certainly not enough to justify the company’s market cap.”