Sunlight is usually a good disinfectant, but not always. Trying to harness the sun’s rays contributed to shady dealings at Solyndra, the California solar panel manufacturer that went bust four years ago. Solyndra was a favorite of the Obama administration until it went bankrupt after it cost American taxpayers $535 million in loan guarantees. It might make a modern morality tale, except that it isn’t very moral.
The inspector general for the Energy Department, which administered the loan program, concluded in the report released last week that Solyndra was better at manufacturing smoke and mirrors than solar panels. “At its core, Solyndra officials failed to make complete, accurate, and direct disclosures to the department of information that was relevant to the loan guarantee process,” the inspector general said. Beyond the Washington Beltway, that would be simply, “The Solyndra folks lied.”
In the heady days of President Obama’s first term, before his famous promise to bring “hope and change” crashed and burned, his “progressive” brain trust would lead the nation into a new era powered by the sunshine and a breeze, eliminating foul fossil fuels. Solyndra would be a model of how smart policy rejuvenates the economic landscape. The company and the promise collapsed within two years, throwing 1,100 employees out of work and blowing a half-billion dollars.
The inspector general said that “providing misleading answers to departmental inquiries and failing to openly disclose critical information violated the spirit and intent of the requirement for Solyndra to report material changes to its loan guarantee application to the department.” Among the “misleading answers” was an overstatement of the revenue the company expected to collect from signed sales contracts.
“Spirit and intent,” like “hope and change,” are words warm, fuzzy and good, but performance is better. Loan administrators should have performed the same sort of due diligence that the loan officer at the bank on the corner would exercise before lending money to the pizza restaurant in the strip mall down the street. If “Trust, but verify” is good enough for an arms treaty, it’s good enough for a pizza joint.
Investigators noted that loan officers felt political pressure from the White House to expedite the loans for Solyndra. Vice President Joe Biden praised the company in a video message for Solyndra’s groundbreaking ceremony in 2009, and President Obama visited the plant a year later. If the Obama enthusiasm for solar power could have been matched by Solyndra’s performance in the workplace, the company would have been a resounding success. But it couldn’t. The president and vice president are two peas in a green-energy pod, something for voters to take into account if the veep throw his hat in the ring.
Solyndra officials passed the blame for their failure. It was China’s fault, they said, for dumping low-priced solar panels onto the global market and undercutting their prices. Beijing’s marketplace behavior could only come as a surprise to someone not paying attention: The People’s Republic has been scorching the global marketplace like a heavy-breathing dragon for years.
Nonetheless, the finger-pointing apparently persuaded the Justice Department that the evaporation of hundreds of millions of tax dollars was not the fault of anyone at Solyndra. No one has been charged with so much as stealing the nameplate off his office door. George Washington Plunkitt, the infamous Tammany Hall pol of the previous century, would not have been surprised. “I seen my opportunities,” he said of public service, “and I took ‘em.”