WASHINGTON — A top Obama administration official who's helping lead a campaign for energy conservation has a major financial interest in two companies that are poised to benefit from the government's spending.
Cathy Zoi, the assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy, owns between $250,000 and $500,000 worth of stock in Landis+Gyr, a Swiss-based manufacturer of special electric meters that are used to create an efficient "smart" grid of electricity use.
Her husband, Robin Roy, owns options on at least 120,000 shares of Serious Materials, a leading manufacturer of energy-efficient windows that's been singled out for praise by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. As an officer of the company, Roy receives options on an additional 2,500 shares every month and will continue to do so until October 2012.
Energy Department aides said that Zoi, once a close ally of former Vice President Al Gore, doesn't participate in decisions that would drive government money to either company.
"To avoid any potential conflict of interest, Ms. Zoi has recused herself as required by law . . . from acting on any particular matter that has a direct and predictable effect on Serious Materials," said Energy Department Press Secretary Stephanie Mueller.
Both companies, particularly Serious Materials, are well positioned to profit from a broad government push for energy conservation, including some of the more than $16 billion for "green" energy initiatives in last year's America Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Obama singled out Serious last year, saying it was creating jobs at a time the country sorely needed them.
"Serious Materials just reopened a manufacturing plant outside of Pittsburgh," Obama said. "Today, that factory is whirring back to life, and Serious Materials is rehiring the folks who lost their jobs. And these workers will now have a new mission: producing some of the most energy efficient windows in the world."
Biden visited a Serious Materials plant in Chicago last year, also to boast about its success.
"This is a story about how we inspire a better tomorrow. You're making some of the most energy-efficient windows in the world, I would argue, the most energy-efficient windows in the world," Biden said.
Praise for the company comes from outside the administration, as well. This week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, went to the company's Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters to announce that he'd signed a state law to lower financing costs for homeowners and businesses installing the windows or other energy-saving retrofits.
Mueller said that in recusing herself from decisions that would drive government money to either company, Zoi was complying with requests from the Department of Energy, the Office of Government Ethics and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Mueller said that Zoi disclosed her financial ties to the two firms during her confirmation hearing and that they "did not present any bar to her nomination or confirmation by the Senate."
Aides said that Zoi also had refused to meet with representatives of groups such as the National Window and Door Manufacturers Association, referring them instead to her assistant, Udai Rohatgi, and had stayed out of discussions of loan guarantees for window manufacturers or other companies that would have any "predictable" impact on Serious Materials.
Conservative organizations and websites such as pajamasmedia.com, which first reported on Zoi's holdings, questioned whether she was completely out of the decision making process. If so, they asked, what did that leave her do?
"If she doesn't participate in decisions that could have a 'direct and predictable effect' on her Landis+Gyr holdings and she doesn't participate in decisions that could have a 'direct and predictable effect' on her holdings in Serious Materials, it seems worth asking in which decisions she can participate," pajamasmedia.com asked.
Zoi is a veteran of the energy and conservation movement. She helped develop the Energy STAR program at the Environmental Protection Agency, then worked as Chief of Staff on Environmental Policy in the Clinton White House.
She later worked for the Bayard Group, since renamed Landis+Gyr Holdings. She was the chief executive of the Alliance for Climate Protection, which was and chaired by Gore.
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