House probing $528M loan to failed solar company
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's eagerness to deliver economic stimulus may have influenced a federal review of a loan to a now bankrupt solar panel manufacturer, a move that may have left taxpayers on the hook for a $528 million debt, House Republicans said Wednesday.
The panel examining the loan disclosed e-mails that appear to show senior staff at the White House Office of Management and Budget chafing about having to conduct "rushed approvals" of federal loan guarantees designed to help jumpstart the nation's renewable energy industry.
GOP lawmakers said the White House had scheduled a groundbreaking for Solyndra Inc. even before the Department of Energy had submitted its final paperwork on the terms of the loan to the OMB.
"We would prefer to have sufficient time to do our due diligence reviews and have the approval set the date for the announcement rather than the other way around," said one of the emails from an unnamed OMB aide to the office of Vice President Joe Biden.
Solyndra was cited by President Barack Obama as an example of how the economic stimulus bill would increase employment through investments in renewable energy. But it couldn't compete with foreign manufacturers of solar panels in the U.S. and the European market dried up. It has filed for bankruptcy, laying off 1,100 workers. Shortly after the filing, FBI officials raided the company's headquarters in Fremont, Calif. The company said the FBI was seeking records on the loans.
Republican lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigations panel are questioning why there was a rush to approve the loan and whether the entire loan guarantee program is warranted.
"Our investigation raises several questions about whether the administration did everything it could to protect taxpayer dollars," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan.
White House spokesman Jay Carney attributed the rush to scheduling decisions.
"What the emails make clear is there was urgency to make a decision on a scheduling matter. It is a big proposition to move the president or to put on an event and that sort of thing so people were simply looking for answers about whether or not people could move forward," Carney told reporters at the White House.
"It had nothing to - and there is no evidence to the contrary - nothing to do with anything besides the need to get an answer to make a scheduling decision," he said.
The Obama administration and Democratic lawmakers have aggressively sought to invest in renewable energy projects as way to increase employment and to reduce the reliance on oil. They note that other nations are also investing heavily in solar and that the race for solar manufacturing jobs is worth winning because the global market is going to be worth trillions of dollars. But the Solyndra fallout has been a huge embarrassment for the White House while Obama travels around the country promoting his jobs plan, which includes more investments in renewable energy.
The subcommittee has been investigating Solyndra for nearly six months as it began to have financial troubles. GOP lawmakers on the committee also noted that investors in Solyndra had contributed to Obama's 2008 campaign.
Federal officials told lawmakers that Solyndra went through three years of review, beginning with the Bush administration, before any taxpayer money was put at risk. Jonathan Silver of the Department of Energy said that the company was well positioned to succeed in 2009.
But Chinese companies have flooded the market with inexpensive panels, and Europe's economy weakened demand from customers. The result has been an unprecedented drop in solar cell prices this year.
Silver said the loan guarantee program is about giving U.S. companies the tools they need to succeed in the world marketplace, and one of those tools, as other countries have learned, is low-cost financing.
"This isn't picking winners and losers. It is helping ensure that we have winners here at all," Silver said.
But GOP officials disputed that the Bush administration was willing to go along with a loan guarantee for Solyndra, noting that a Department of Energy committee voted against offering a conditional commitment to Solyndra in January 2009. The committee said the deal was premature and questioned its underlying financial support, said Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida, chaiman of the investigative panel for the Energy and Commerce Committee
Two executives with Solyndra Inc. were also asked to testify Wednesday but are now expected to appear voluntarily next week instead. They are Brian Harrison, the company's president and chief executive officer, and W.G. Stover Jr., a senior vice president and chief financial officer.
Democratic lawmakers attempted to focus the concerns on Solyndra itself and argued that the company's problems shouldn't be used to derail a worthy program.
Solyndra was heralded as one of the nation's bright spots of green technology innovation, creating a solar tube of sorts that could soak up sunlight from many angles, producing energy more efficiently and using less space. The company's panels were also light and easy to install, which was meant to save upfront costs.
But over the past few years, other companies caught up and provided similar products at a lower cost.