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

War of Words over Solyndra Loans Heating Up

Republicans are still claiming Obama gave an improper handout to Solyndra | Photo: Steve Juyrvetson/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The largely political battle between Republicans and the Obama Administration over the Department of Energy's renewable energy research and development loan program has gotten more serious this week, as a prominent Maryland Representative has accused San Diego-area Congressmember Darrell Issa of intimidating federal employees and depriving them of their basic Constitutional rights.

In a letter sent to Issa today, Rep . Elijah E. Cummings -- Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which Issa chairs -- protested that Issa's ordering a Department of Energy (DOE) staff member to testify without access to counsel was "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."

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The DOE staffer, whom Cumming's letter said had not yet been able to find an attorney, was ordered to testify before the Committee this afternoon. In his letter, Cummings describes this order as a unilateral and unfair action by Issa:

"This action is even more troubling given that this employee has cooperated at every stage of this investigation, has produced all documents demanded of him, and has made every effort to obtain a private attorney after you insisted that the Department's General Counsel could no longer represent him. As soon as the employee received the Committee's subpoena, he initiated efforts to locate private counsel at his own expense. After identifying an attorney, a routine conflicts check by the attorney's law firm revealed that he could not represent the employee, a common occurrence in these matters. The employee immediately resumed efforts to identify another counsel and notified the Committee in a timely fashion."

"The right to counsel is clearly envisioned by our Committee Rules, which provide that an attorney representing a deponent has the right to make objections, request rulings by the Chairman, and appeal those rulings to the Committee," Cummings continued. "Forcing a civil servant to appear at a deposition without counsel deprives him of the rights unanimously adopted by Committee Members at our first organizational meeting last year."

This conflict occurs in the context of the Committee's investigation of the DOE's $535 million loan guarantee to the failed photovoltaic company Solyndra in Fremont, California, and of the wider loan guarantee program itself. On Monday, Cummings sent a previous letter objecting to Issa's sending armed U.S. Marshalls to the DOE office to serve subpoenas on six other staffers. Issa's office issued a statement claiming that the six staffers had refused to be served via email, a charge that Cummings disputes.

Cummings also slammed Issa for ordering depositions for the DOE staffers without keeping Cummings in the loop. Committee chairmen usually do involve the ranking member in deciding whether to depose civil servants or other members of the public.

There's no love lost between Issa and Cummings. In 2011, Issa charged that Cummings leapfrogged over Democrats with more seniority to take the Ranking Member position in his Committee because Cummings was a "better obstructionist."

Solyndra, a Bay Area company that was developing an intriguing but ultimately unprofitable high-end thin-film photovoltaic system, went bankrupt in 2011 as global prices for PV cells plummeted. The firm had received a $535 million loan guarantee from the DOE, which it used to secure a $527 million loan from the Treasury Department. The DOE's loan guarantee, part of the so-called "1705 program" established by the Bush-era Energy Policy Act of 2005, was initially rejected by DOE staff in the last months of the Bush Administration, but approved soon after Obama took office.

GOP campaigners claim that Obama's reversal is evidence that his administration is using the Loan Guarantee program to reward campaign contributors. This charge persists on the right despite thorough debunking by a Washington Post investigative report, and despite the fact that a highly critical report by the Republican-controlled Energy and Commerce Committee failed to find any evidence of such impropriety. It would seem the Obama administration's DOE could well have handled the Solyndra failure much more wisely, but no evidence of anything worse than the usual bureaucratic negligience -- and possible corporate misrepresentation -- has ever been revealed.

Nonetheless, the notion that Solyndra got federal cash in return for supporting the 2008 Obama campaign continues to enjoy traction among the right, an example being failed presidential candidate Michele Bachman's 2001 claim that the Solyndra debacle is a scandal "worse than Watergate."

For perspective, the Solyndra failure's $527 million price tag is 3% of the $16 billion in loans guaranteed since 2005 by the 1705 program, which itself accounts for only 2% of all federal loan guarantees. Republicans have not been reluctant to look for federal loan guarantees themselves, as witness $1.9 billion in federal loans and guarantees awarded to Halliburton in one two-year period.

In fact, one Republican who's tried to win loans from the DOE to help develop a greener energy infrastructure is none other than Darrell Issa himself, who in 2010 urged Energy Secretary Steven Chu to expedite loan awards to California renewables companies -- one of which, the recently bankrupted electric car company Aptera, was part-owned by a major Issa campaign contributor.

Nonetheless, look for DOE's loan guarantees to renewable energy companies to take on even more prominence, and for the war of words to get even nastier, as Election Day nears.

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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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