New emails in the congressional probe of failed solar panel maker Solyndra LLC are raising sharp questions about claims that a fundraiser to President Obama never got involved in pushing for loans to the now-bankrupt company.
Oklahoma billionaire George Kaiser, whose foundation was heavily invested in Solyndra, told two associates to “pursue your contacts” in the White House when discussing the company in the fall of 2010, according to emails released Wednesday by House Republicans.
Another email from Ken Levit, executive director of the foundation, to Steve Mitchell, who served on Solyndra’s board, laid bare the extent of the enthusiasm for the project inside the White House.
“They about had an orgasm in [Vice President Joseph R.] Biden’s office when we mentioned Solyndra,” the Feb. 27, 2010, email states.
Pressing the White House to release documents in response to a recent congressional subpoena, leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday questioned the notion that political influence played no role in more than a half-billion dollars in government loans awarded to California-based Solyndra.
The company went bankrupt in September, just two years after winning a $535 million loan guarantee package from the Department of Energy. Its investors included the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Mr. Kaiser was a fundraiser for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race.
”We note that the White House has repeatedly stated that no political influence was brought to bear with regard to Solyndra, and that Mr. George Kaiser, a Solyndra investor and Obama fundraiser, never discussed Solyndra” during his 17 visits to the White House, Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican, and Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican, wrote in a letter to the White House on Wednesday.
Mr. Upton is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Mr. Stearns chairs the investigations subcommittee that has been looking into the Solyndra collapse for months.
”Documents recently obtained by the Committee directly contradict those statements,” the lawmakers wrote, citing several emails.
In one email highlighted by Republicans, Mr. Levit wrote to an undisclosed recipient about a meeting with staff in Mr. Biden’s office who were “all big fans of Solyndra.”
However, a White House spokesman and House Democrats disputed any political influence in the awarding of loans to Solyndra, accusing congressional Republicans on Wednesday of selectively releasing documents. Indeed, they say Mr. Kaiser rejected any opportunity to lobby the White House on behalf of Solyndra.
“Even the documents cherry-picked by House Republicans today affirm what we have said all along: this loan was a decision made on the merits at the Department of Energy,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Wednesday in an email to The Washington Times.
“Nothing in the 85,000 pages of documents produced thus far by the administration or in these four indicate any favoritism to political supporters. We wish that House Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee were as zealous about creating jobs as they were about this oversight investigation.”
Despite reports that the White House has insisted Mr. Kaiser never broached the subject of Solyndra during his numerous visits to the White House, committee leaders say the newly obtained documents contradict that assertion.
In their letter to the White House, Mr. Upton and Mr. Stearns also cited an Oct. 6, 2010, email from Mr. Mitchell to Mr. Kaiser.
“The WH meeting is more about assistance in selling panels to the government than it is about getting the [Energy Department] loan revised,” Mr. Mitchell wrote.
“The WH has offered to help in the past and we do have a contact within the WH that we are working with. I think the company is hoping that we have some unnatural relationship that can open bigger doors - I’ve cautioned them that no one really has those relationships anymore.”
In a subsequent email two days later, Mr. Kaiser wrote that the “same political calculus” holds for the Department of Defense.
It’s unclear what defense issue Mr. Kaiser was referring to in his email, but a House Republican lawmaker recently questioned the Pentagon about a $400,000 Navy contract that Solyndra stood to receive not long before its collapse.
In an earlier email, Mr. Kaiser told Mr. Mitchell that he questioned the assumption that the “WH is the path to pursue,” saying he doubted whether “Rouse/Browner would intervene,” referring to White House counselor Pete Rouse and former energy aide Carol Browner.
In the same email, Mr. Kaiser said he viewed a White House appeal “only as a last resort and, even then, questionable.”
Later, Mr. Kaiser told Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Levit in a separate email to “pursue your contacts in the WH to follow up on the casual comment during the plant visit and we can possibly reinforce the effort so long as it is in the form of ‘I thought you should know, in case it comes up’ rather than ‘can you help with this.’”
Mr. Obama toured Solyndra’s plant in California last year in a widely publicized event. During his visit, Mr. Obama remarked, “The true engine of economic growth will always be companies like Solyndra.”
The White House has declined to produce documents on Solyndra in response to the congressional subpoena. In a letter last week to the committee, White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said the subpoena has been driven more by partisan politics than a “legitimate effort to conduct a responsible investigation.”
‘I never lobbied Solyndra’
Another of the emails released by Republicans discusses a meeting between Solyndra’s former chief executive, Chris Gronet, and the head of the Energy Department’s loan program, Jonathan Silver.
“So it appears that things are headed in the right direction and Chu’s apparently staying involved in Solyndra’s application and continues to talk up the company as a success story,” the email states.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu is expected to testify to Congress about the Solyndra loan later this month. Mr. Silver resigned in September after his congressional testimony.
Even before Solyndra received the Energy Department’s loan backing, White House officials knew about the solar panel maker, according to an email Mr. Kaiser wrote to Mr. Mitchell on March 5.
While visiting with a group of “administration folks in DC who are in charge of the stimulus process (White House, not DOE) Solyndra came up,” Mr. Kaiser wrote in an email, adding that “every one of them responded simultaneously about their thorough knowledge of the Solyndra story, suggesting it was one of their prime poster children.”
Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee called the release of emails Wednesday “misleading and inaccurate” in a letter sent to their Republican colleagues. They said Mr. Kaiser’s meeting with the “administration folks” wasn’t about Solyndra, but focused instead on his foundation’s efforts to build a park in Oklahoma powered by “on-site geothermal energy” and a study by the National Energy Policy Institute on energy policy.
Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Diana DeGette of Colorado, in a letter to Republicans, said Mr. Kaiser told committee staff during an interview that he did not mention Solyndra during a two-hour dinner he had with Mr. Obama in Las Vegas in October 2010.
After the dinner, Mr. Kaiser told Mr. Levit that he never mentioned Solyndra directly to Mr. Obama.
“I talked in general about the Chinese and solar but didn’t want to get too specific with him,” Mr. Kaiser wrote in an email the next day.
During his interview, Mr. Kaiser said he could recall one time when he possibly mentioned Solyndra to White House officials, referring to a February 2010 meeting, according to the letter from Mr. Waxman and Ms. DeGette.
The Democrats say Mr. Kaiser rejected any opportunities to get involved in lobbying the White House for support in getting the Energy Department loans for Solyndra.
“I never lobbied for Solyndra,” he was quoted as saying in a recent interview with congressional staff.
• Jim McElhatton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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