News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Darrell Issa to Energy Secretary Chu: Don't Let The Door Hit You On the Way Out

Steven Chu and Comic Sans | Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr/Creative Commons License

As has been widely expected, Steven Chu announced today that he will be stepping down from his post as Secretary of Energy as early as March. And Southern California Representative Darrell Issa chose the occasion of Chu's announcement to issue a surprisingly ungracious statement marking Chu's departure.

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Issa's office released a statement Friday damning Chu for carrying out Obama administration policies during his tenure:

While I wish Secretary Chu well in his future endeavors and respect his contributions to his country as a scientist, the direction the Department of Energy has taken under his leadership has been disconcerting. While many will remember Secretary Chu for his comments about the need to raise gas prices on American consumers and the high grades he publicly bestowed on himself, I found taxpayer losses on projects like Solyndra and the Department's deeply misguided effort to use taxpayer dollars as an investment bank for unproven technologies to be the most problematic aspects of his legacy.

The San Diego-area representative, in his role as Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has spent the last few months waging a partisan and strident campaign against Chu's Department of Energy centering on the highly publicized Solyndra bankruptcy. Issa had gone so far in the course of his committee's investigation as to order U.S. Marshals to serve subpoenas on DOE staff people to force them to testify before his committee. Issa ordered one DOE staff person to testify before his committee without access to counsel, a move that Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democratic member of the Oversight Committee, referred to as "an extreme abuse of the authority of this Committee, contrary to the Constitutional concept of due process, and a stain on the Committee's honor."

The controversy centered around the Energy Department's "1701 program," a Bush administration renewable energy research and development initiative under which the Bay Area photovoltaic firm Solyndra received a $535 million loan guarantee. The firm's later bankruptcy was a major Republican talking point during the 2012 election, with Issa and other Republicans contending that Solyndra only received the loan due to Democratic Party cronyism, but the issue failed to gain traction with most of the electorate.

One fact that consistently went unmentioned in Issa's rhetorical war with the Energy Department: Issa has his own "Solyndra" skeleton in his closet. In 2010, Issa wrote a letter to Chu urging the Secretary to expedite a federal loan to California electric car startup Aptera. According to blogger Lee Fang at Think Progress,

one of the investors backing Aptera is the Beall Family Trust. The Beall Family Trust is controlled by Don Beall, the former CEO of Rockwell. Beall, now a board member of Aptera, happens to be a Republican donor in California. A political action committee he helped found and fund, the New Majority PAC, has contributed at least $15,000 to Issa over the years.

Beall has given to the McCain campaign, the Bush campaigns, and various party and congressional campaign accounts. As Lucas O'Connor notes, Beall's profile as a major donor makes him a "good friend to have for any California Republican looking to improve their profile, their influence, or their office." Beall gave one direct donation to Issa, a $250 check. The donation came just two months before Issa sent a letter recommending the government loan to Beall's company, Aptera.

Aptera went into Chapter 7 liquidation in December 2011, and has since been bought by a Chinese auto manufacturer.

For Chu's part, the outgoing Secretary defended the loan program in a letter to DOE staff:

"While critics try hard to discredit the program, the truth is that only one percent of the companies we funded went bankrupt. That one percent has gotten more attention than the 99 percent that have not."

Most independent analysts seem to agree with Chu's assessment of the program.

For those who had hoped that the Solyndra bankruptcy might fade from constant mention post-election, Issa's broadside is disappointing. It's also disappointing to anyone who had hoped for simple human decency from House leadership -- if indeed anyone had any hope left on that score at all.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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