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OMB Dodges Subpoena on Solyndra Solar Investigation

July 25th 2011

Economy - solyndra plant groundbreaking
Solyndra plant groundbreaking, 2009 (credit: Solyndra)

The Obama administration’s budget office dodged a deadline Friday to hand over subpoenaed documents sought as part of a congressional investigation into a politically-connected solar panel manufacturer.

The Office of Budget and Management didn’t send over the requested documents—internal emails, memos and letters from OMB and anything in their possession from other offices—demanded in the subpoena from a House energy subcommittee on July 14 . But OMB promised to make a “substantial” number of internal documents and emails available for committee staff to review, said OMB spokesman Kenneth Baer.

The House panel is looking into whether Solyndra, a California-based solar panel maker, improperly gained a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have sought answers about the decision to award the guarantee, especially given the turn of events after Solyndra won the public support. Financial difficulties forced the company to shutter a plant, lay off workers, and cancel a planned initial public offering. 

As reported in May, Obama administration officials bypassed measures meant to protect taxpayers in awarding the large loan guarantee to Solyndra.

The committee released a statement that said, “The subpoena was clear and provided a generous 7-day deadline, yet OMB failed to turn over a single page. The committee has exercised extraordinary patience and it’s well past time for OMB to abandon the gamesmanship and finally turn over the documents that we have been seeking since March 14."

Baer said the OMB withheld some documents because “There’s a general concern that when the executive branch makes internal documents and deliberations available to outside people … for those [executive branch] workers they feel this is going to have a chilling effect on their ability to deliberate on other matters [in the future].” He also said some subpoenaed documents contain financial and other sensitive information.

Baer said the documents show civil servants who “are people who take their integrity extremely seriously. There was no political interference to tell them what to do or how to do their job. There was no pressure to rubber stamp this transaction. It confirms that OMB and DOE did a careful, diligent review.” He would not say whether OMB had handed over all the documents the House subcommittee asked for, but said that discussions were ongoing about making even more documents available.

Solyndra’s prime financiers include Oklahoma oil billionaire George Kaiser, a “bundler” of campaign donations who raised at least $50,000 for the president’s 2008 election effort. Kaiser has declined interview requests about the Solyndra loan guarantee. Solyndra has said politics played no role in its award, and Energy Department officials said each loan guarantee was awarded after careful review.

Meanwhile, on the eve of the subpoena deadline, Solyndra President and CEO Brian Harrison pitched the company’s business story to members of Congress and journalists in Washington.

Harrison presented a slide show with a heading: “The real story about Solyndra.” His talk was meant to counter perceptions that the $535 million energy loan guarantee, the first awarded under the Obama administration, was a misfire of public funds.

Harrison, hired as CEO one year ago, said the California solar panel company, which specializes in the commercial rooftop market, has seen a steady growth in business and recently enjoyed a record quarter for shipments. “We are growing,” he said. “We are hiring people.”

The government financing, he said, was crucial, coming at a time the commercial market was bone dry. “There just was no money flowing back in 2009,” Harrison said. Without the support, he said, “Our forward-looking prospects would be dim.”

Harrison noted that the company first applied under Bush, though it won the funding under Obama. Harrison said politics were not a factor in Solyndra landing the prized financial support. “Diligence, investigation, evaluation went on for two years, nine months before we were finally given the approval,” he said.

Harrison said he met this week with politicians from both parties. He said the company’s interactions were with the Department of Energy, not the OMB, and that Solyndra has not taken a position on the subpoena itself. Instead, he focused on Solyndra’s business story. The company has also spent $930,000 lobbying in recent years, according to data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation.

“I’m not a political guy,” he said. “I’m just trying to grow our business.”

Jeremy Borden and Ronnie Greene write for iWatch News, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, from where this article is reprinted.


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