Sep 13, 2011 2 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
Newly uncovered emails show the White House closely monitored the Energy Department’s deliberations over a $535 million government loan to Solyndra, the politically-connected solar energy firm that recently went bankrupt and is now the subject of a criminal investigation.
The company’s solar panel factory was heralded as a centerpiece of the president’s green energy plan — billed as a way to jump start a promising new industry. And internal emails uncovered by investigators for the House Energy and Commerce Committee that were shared exclusively with ABC News show the Obama administration was keenly monitoring the progress of the loan, even as analysts were voicing serious concerns about the risk involved. “This deal is NOT ready for prime time,” one White House budget analyst wrote in a March 10, 2009 email, nine days before the administration formally announced the loan.
“If you guys think this is a bad idea, I need to unwind the W[est] W[ing] QUICKLY,” wrote Ronald A. Klain, who was chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, in another email sent March 7, 2009. The “West Wing” is the portion of the White House complex that holds the offices of the president and his top staffers. Klain declined comment to ABC News.
Beginning in March, ABC News, in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News, was first to report on simmering questions about the role political influence may have played in Solyndra’s selection as the Obama administration’s first loan guarantee recipient. Federal auditors had flagged the loan, saying some applicants had benefitted from special treatment.
The emails were uncovered by investigators for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will hold hearings on the Solyndra loan Wednesday. The Republican-led House has been investigating the Obama administration’s green energy loan program for months. That probe took on new urgency two weeks ago, when Solyndra abruptly shut its doors and laid off 1,100 employees. Last week, the FBI raided the factory as part of a joint investigation with the Energy Department’s inspector general.
“This is not right. This is not good,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who chairs the House committee that is examining the loan. “It makes you sick to your stomach. This is taxpayer money.”
As federal authorities examine whether Solyndra misled the government about its true financial state, the Obama White House is fielding fresh questions over why it pushed so hard for Solyndra. Officials with DOE and the Office of Management and Budget are expected to testify Wednesday. Executives with Solyndra, invited to appear as witnesses, will not attend Wednesday’s hearing but have told the House committee they will voluntarily appear next week.
Obama’s DOE has said it backed Solyndra as a potential game changer in the clean tech movement, but the company’s collapse came after clear warning signs the venture was a high risk from the start.
The White House has argued that any effort to finance start-up businesses in a relatively new field like solar energy is bound to include risky ventures that could fail. They reject the notion being pushed by Republicans that Solyndra was chosen for political reasons. One of the largest private investors in the deal, Oklahoma billionaire George Kaiser, was also a prominent fundraiser for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
White House Says Emails Do Show Interest in Solyndra
White House officials said the emails shared with ABC News Tuesday do show White House interest in the timing of the Solyndra decision — only because the president was considering announcing the decision himself while on a trip to California.
“I think that it is clear that folks understood at DOE that they were supposed to make their decision on the merits and do whatever they were supposed to do to kick the tires on the decision,” an administration official told ABC News. “Folks were interested in being updated as to whether the decision-making process was completed.”
The White House also noted to ABC News that the Bush administration was the first to consider Solyndra’s application and that some executives at the company have a history of donating to Republicans. The results of the Congressional probe shared Tuesday with ABC News show that less than two weeks before President Bush left office, on January 9, 2009, the Energy Department’s credit committee made a unanimous decision not to offer a loan commitment to Solyndra.
Even after Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009, analysts in the Energy Department and in the Office of Management and Budget were repeatedly questioning the wisdom of the loan. In one exchange, an Energy official wrote of “a major outstanding issue” — namely, that Solyndra’s numbers showed it would run out of cash in September 2011.
There was also concern about the high-risk nature of the project. Internally, the Office of Management and Budget wrote that “the risk rating for the project sponsor [Solyndra] … seems high.” Outside analysts had warned for months that the company might not be a sound investment.
Peter Lynch, a New York-based solar energy analyst, told ABC News it took only a cursory glance through Solyndra’s prospectus to see there was a problem with their numbers.
“It’s very difficult to perceive a company with a model that says, well, I can build something for six dollars and sell it for three dollars,” Lynch said. “Those numbers don’t generally work. You don’t want to lose three dollars for every unit you make.”
In 2008, Solyndra, then just three years old, pushed ahead with its application for government backing to build a new plant to produce its unique solar panels. An outside rating agency, Fitch, gave Solyndra a B+ credit rating that August. Two months earlier, in June 2008, Dun & Bradstreet issued a credit appraisal of the company. Its assessment: “Fair.”
Those are not top-of-the-line scores, Fitch Ratings spokeswoman Cindy Stoller told the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News, which has been investigating the deal in partnership with ABC News since March. She could not discuss the Solyndra review specifically, but said of a B+ rating: “It’s a non-investment grade rating.” She provided a company ratings definition, showing that B+ falls between a “highly speculative” B and “speculative” BB.
Asked about those ratings, and how significantly the department viewed the risk, Energy officials said Monday the department conducted “extensive due diligence” on the application, which included consideration of the Fitch rating.
“We believed the rating, which is used to inform our analysis of potential risks associated with the loan, was appropriate for the size, scale and innovative nature of the project and was consistent with the ratings of other innovative start-up companies,” said Damien LaVera, an Energy Department spokesman.
“The Department conducted exhaustive reviews of Solyndra’s technology and business model prior to approving their loan guarantee application,” LaVera said. “Sophisticated, professional private investors, who put more than $1 billion of their own money behind Solyndra, came to the same conclusion as the Department: that Solyndra was an extremely promising company with innovative technology and a very good investment.”