- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Now seems an unlikely time for handing out bonuses at bankrupt Solyndra LLC, but that’s the plan of company attorneys intending to dole out up to a half-million dollars to persuade key employees to stay put.

Nearly two dozen Solyndra employees could receive bonuses ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 each under a proposal filed by Solyndra’s attorneys in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware.

The attorneys say the extra money will add motivation at a time when workers at the solar company have little job security and more responsibilities because so many of their colleagues have been fired.

The names of the bonus-eligible employees are not disclosed in the court filings that outline the bonus proposal. None of the employees is among the so-called corporate “insiders” — top officers or members of the board of directors, records show.

The proposed bonus recipients include nine equipment engineers, six general business and finance employees and up to two information technology workers.

The biggest bonus, for $50,000, would go to a Solyndra employee whose job title is listed as a senior director with a base salary of $206,499 per year. Two senior managers stand to receive bonuses of $30,000 and $32,500.

Bankruptcy attorneys said the so-called “key employee incentive plan” aims to keep important personnel from leaving the company.

Solyndra went broke just two years after winning a more than $500,000,000 federal loan-guarantee package, and one year after President Obama toured its California headquarters and hailed its prospects.

Most of Solyndra’s employees were laid off last year. The company employed about 1,100 people last year. Just 84 remain. Of those who managed to avoid the mass firings, many have been scrambling to find jobs.

“Within the last few months, the debtors have experienced a serious loss of personnel, which has made the continuation of the sales process in an orderly fashion more difficult,” Solyndra bankruptcy attorneys disclosed in a recent filing.

“The further loss of experienced personnel may seriously jeopardize the ongoing sales efforts and, should it continue, require the engagement of experienced consultants at a much higher cost than maintaining the existing personnel.”

The attorneys argued that the extra bonus money — ranging from 8 percent to 30 percent of the employees’ total base annual salaries — “will motivate the eligible employees to work as hard as possible” to achieve a Chapter 11 restructuring plan and sale.

The workers, often carrying a heavier load because of the layoffs, “are well aware that the clock is ticking on their employment,” the attorneys added.

Three of the employees earn less than $100,000 in base salary, and eight make $150,000 or more. The highest paid employee, eligible for the $50,000 bonus, is paid $206,499 per year.

David Epstein, a visiting scholar at the American Bankruptcy Institute, said the proposal, like any other incentive plan, needs to be approved by a bankruptcy judge. He said it’s not uncommon in corporate-restructuring cases to have companies try to find extra money for key employees.

“You’re always going to have people you’ve got to keep and who would be hard to replace even in good times,” he said. “But they become irreplaceable because of the bankruptcy.

“If you have someone good, she’s going to have lots of opportunities, and see the ship is sinking, and understand that this is a less than ideal job market and be ready to take a job when it’s offered,” he said.

“In theory, [the incentive plan] makes sense,” he said, acknowledging that “abuses and mistakes” can happen.

Meanwhile, most other former employees, including several top former officials, have claims pending in the company’s bankruptcy case.

James Gibbons, a Stanford University professor who served on Solyndra’s board of directors, filed a claim for more than $140,000 last month in the bankruptcy, records show. He did not return phone and email messages this week.

Another claim in the case, for $456,000, appears tied to a severance deal for the company’s founder and former chief executive, Chris Gronet. He left the company weeks before its collapse last summer, avoiding the public interrogations that befell two other top company executives who invoked their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify at a televised congressional hearing.

Bankruptcy filings show a severance deal arranged for Mr. Gronet, also for $456,000, though he never received the money. Phone messages left at a number under Mr. Gronet’s name were not returned.

Bankruptcy records show that some Solyndra executives received bonuses of more than $40,000 in the months before the company’s collapse. The San Jose Mercury News, which reported on the executive bonuses in November, quoted a former employee as saying that retention bonuses were paid to executives because of high turnover.

In some cases, bankruptcy law allows a trustee or debtor to recoup payments to “insiders” of a company, such as top executives and directors and their family members. The payments had to have been made at a time when the company was insolvent.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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