House Republicans investigating the collapse of Solyndra are now examining other green energy companies to determine if their government-backed loans were risky gambles that were granted because of political influence with the White House.
“When taxpayers lost over a half-billion dollars on Solyndra, the Obama administration said that it was just one bad apple and that the rest of the portfolio was strong,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on regulatory affairs, stimulus oversight and government spending.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that Solyndra was just the tip of the iceberg in a sea of taxpayer risk,” Jordan said during a hearing last week.
The panel questioned top executives from Abound, First Solar, Nevada Geothermal, and BrightSource, which were awarded a combined $5 billion in loan guarantees from the Energy Department — one-third of the entire loan guarantee portfolio.
The executives said their loans were awarded on the merits of the project, not politics, but Jordan produced emails that he says shows a direct link between the White House and BrightSource, which received $1.6 billion in loan guarantees.
In one email, BrightSource CEO John Woolard, told a top Energy Department official there had been direct discussions with “Obama about the program’s challenges.”
“The Obama I think it is?”
“Is the Obama in this sentence the Obama I think it is — the president of the United States of America?” Jordan asked. “So just a minute ago, you said there was no political influence, but in an email you reference the president of the United States of America who had a direct conversation with a guy who cares pretty deeply about this project getting approved?”
One month after that email was sent, BrightSource received conditional approval of the loan. “If that’s not political influence, I don’t know what is,” Jordan said.
In another email discussing the project, Woolard asked the Energy Department to proofread a letter from then-BrightSource Chairman John Bryson, who now serves as Obama’s Commerce secretary, to White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley.
“I believe everything we did was fully on its merits,” Woolard said.
Despite Woolard’s assurances to the committee that Bryson’s letter was never sent to the White House, the panel will request that Bryson appear before them to explain what happened.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the full committee, said the emails are the first evidence the investigating panel has discovered that links any of the Energy Department loans directly to the White House.
Additionally, Republicans asked Michael Ahearn, chairman of First Solar, about 700,000 stocks he sold just days after getting the loan approved by the government. The company has laid off 30 percent of its worker force, and while its stock was trading at $300 in 2008, it was selling for $14.35 last week.
Rep. Mike Kelly (R–Pa.) called it “absolutely abysmal” that taxpayers were asked to funnel money into the company while Ahearn sold his own stock, in essence “voting with your feet.”
DOE’s “horrible decision”
“The Department of Energy made a horrible decision and they continue to do that,” Kelly said. “We’re pouring money down an open hole and the chief executive officer bailed out.”
Ahearn told the panel that it is “very normal to sell stocks over time after the company is made public. That’s what happened here.”
The panel also questioned a representative from Abound, which despite receiving a $400 million loan guarantee, let go 180 employees earlier this year.
President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus package included $90 billion to fund green energy projects, which the administration said would aid in the country’s economic recovery.
Obama pledged to “harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories,” but Republicans say that initiative is a gamble that has not paid off.
“This is the frustration that we face,” said Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.). “I would challenge whether anyone watching this hearing today whether the federal government needs another dime of taxpayer money.”
Added Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.): “I’m tired of people coming to the government as part of their business plan.”
One executive, James Nelson, who is CEO of Solar 3D, agreed, and told the panel that his company did not accept any government aid.
“Our company has a much better chance than Solyndra ever did of creating a game-changing technology,” Nelson said.
“We have reached this point based on the free enterprise principles of risk and reward, without the use of government aid. In the end, we will become commercial for less than $10 million, and change the landscape of solar energy. It will be an example of the amazing American economic system at work,” Nelson said.
“The loan guarantee program should be retired permanently. The path to commercialization requires brains, discipline and grit. It is rarely aided, and often impeded, by government involvement. Our government should trust the free market forces that have made America great,” Nelson said.