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Originally published October 14, 2008 at 3:00 PM | Page modified October 14, 2008 at 3:00 PM

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Solar deal to enrich firm with Schwarzenegger tie?

A relative of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and one of his former cabinet secretaries are part of a private investment group that could score a lucrative payoff if regulators approve a sprawling solar-energy complex near the Mojave Desert Preserve.

Associated Press Writer


A relative of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and one of his former cabinet secretaries are part of a private investment group that could score a lucrative payoff if regulators approve a sprawling solar-energy complex near the Mojave Desert Preserve.

The personal connections have raised questions about possible favorable treatment for a project being touted as a breakthrough in the development of solar power.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a longtime environmental activist who is the cousin of first lady Maria Shriver, and former state Environmental Protection Secretary Terry Tamminen were named senior advisers at VantagePoint Venture Partners last year.

VantagePoint has a multimillion-dollar stake in startup BrightSource Energy, which plans to spend up to $2 billion to build three solar-power plants on nearly 6 square miles of federal land along the Nevada state line.

The project - one of dozens seeking permission to harness the power of the sun in California - would be the first in the nation on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. It would power 142,000 homes annually, potentially generating billions of dollars of revenue over time.

Kennedy and Tamminen say they are not lobbying on behalf of the California project. But each stands to profit if construction gets green-lighted and BrightSource prospers, although their income is derived from a pool of investments, not a single company. VantagePoint declined to disclose its projected earnings from BrightSource.

State Sen. Roy Ashburn said the California Energy Commission, the lead agency reviewing the project in tandem with federal regulators, should consider the link to Tamminen and Kennedy.

"The question is, does the project receive a different review, a different treatment because of those relationships?" said Ashburn, a Bakersfield Republican whose district includes the proposed site. "The public needs to be assured no favorable consideration is granted. We want to make sure no law is broken."

Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said "it's pretty obvious why they are being hired. They are well known, they are connected to Schwarzenegger."

Kennedy has been involved with BrightSource - he even traveled to Chile to work on a possible deal - although he said he hasn't spoken to Schwarzenegger or his cousin about the California project.

"I'm not going to do anything that puts me in a conflicted position," Kennedy said.

Tamminen said he has talked with the governor about the solar energy company. "I don't know if it helps to have my name on the letterhead," Tamminen said. The VantagePoint Web site says Tamminen, who left the state payroll in 2006, continues to advise Schwarzenegger on energy policy.


Schwarzenegger has been pushing California toward a new era of green energy, but a spokesman said in a statement the governor has no involvement with the project or the Energy Commission's decision.

The five members on the commission were appointed by Schwarzenegger. The commission member reviewing the Brightsource application declined to comment. A decision on the desert complex is months away.

Yet even as regulators scrutinize the deal, Schwarzenegger has lavished praise on BrightSource and predicted rapid, global growth for the Oakland-based company. He personally introduced BrightSource CEO John Woolard, a senior adviser at VantagePoint, at a conference for Mexican and U.S. governors in August.

"They're going to blanket the world with solar panels, let me tell you. I'm so excited about that," the governor said.

Kennedy also raved about BrightSource at the conference, with Schwarzenegger listening on stage.

Woolard said in a statement that no one at the company had asked Kennedy or Tamminen to push the project with Schwarzenegger, and that the company is not looking for an insider advantage. He called the government review "transparent," and added that VantagePoint is invested in the company, not any particular project.

Others at VantagePoint also have connections to the governor.

Company executives - including CEO Alan Salzman and managing partner Jim Marver - have given Schwarzenegger's political committees nearly $30,000 in direct or indirect donations, records show. A business connected to Salzman's wife donated nearly $40,000 in direct and indirect dollars.

"Individual donations that may have come from (VantagePoint) staff in no way constitute a corporate relationship with political committees or an expectation for future favors on behalf of the company," managing director Stephan Dolezalek said in a statement.

California law prohibits improper influence of public officials, such as bribes or excessive gifts intended to sway decisions. Records of gifts received by commission members for 2008, if any, will not be available until next year.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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