What’s Happening With That Solar Company Scandal? Here’s Our Guide on Solyndra.
This post has been updated.
Once hailed by the Obama administration as a key example of its commitment to green technology driving growth and creating jobs, solar company Solyndra has lost a good deal of its shine. It’s bankrupt and the target of a federal criminal investigation.
Scrutiny—particularly from House Republicans—quickly shifted to the Obama administration, which has been accused of rushing to approve a $535-million loan to the company in 2009 for political reasons and without carefully weighing the risks.
So, what’s the situation, who’s the focus of the investigations and how big a deal is this Solyndra storyline? We sort through what it does—and doesn’t—mean.
What was the investment to begin with?
The government first began considering Solyndra for a loan as part of a loan-guarantee program that began under the Bush administration. The Obama administration expanded the loan guarantee program by way of the stimulus and approved the half-billion-dollar loan to the California-based solar company.
As the Washington Post’s Wonkblog notes, Solyndra makes up just 1.3 percent of the $38 billion in loans extended as part of the loan-guarantee program, and it’s the only loan to go bad so far.
Now that Solyndra has filed for bankruptcy protection, how much taxpayers will actually recoup depends on how things shake out in bankruptcy court and whether any money is left. Bloomberg and Time recently reported that at least some private investors are in line to be repaid before U.S. taxpayers.
What’s the government’s investigation about?
It depends on which investigation you’re wondering about. According to the Wall Street Journal, the FBI’s criminal investigation focuses on “whether Solyndra executives knowingly misled the government to secure more than $500 million in loan guarantees.” (A Solyndra spokesman said the company is “fully cooperating” with the investigation.)
Meanwhile, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released findings yesterday from a seven-month investigation into the government’s role in approving the loan. The memo, titled “The Solyndra Story” [PDF], blames the Department of Energy and the White House Office of Management and Budget for ignoring red flags “in their rush to spend stimulus dollars.”
Did the Obama administration do anything wrong?
Well, government shouldn’t approve the use of taxpayer money without doing its due diligence first. A 2010 report [PDF] by the Government Accountability Office found that the Department of Energy “treated applicants inconsistently, favoring some and disadvantaging others.”
Solyndra wasn’t the only one that got fast-tracked. The GAO also found that in at least four other cases, the government agreed to back companies before obtaining final reports assessing their risk of failure.
But so far, there’s no evidence that the Obama administration approved the loan in order to curry favor with supporters, as some have speculated.
Ultimately, Solyndra was a failed investment decision on the part of the government, which, unfortunately for taxpayers, isn’t unusual. Consider the billions in bailout dollars that were lent to banks that, like Solyndra, ended up bankrupt.
Was the urgency for the loan politically motivated?
That’s what Republicans have speculated and some reports have suggested. Noting that one of Solyndra’s major investors was a venture-capital fund linked to George Kaiser, a bundler for Obama’s 2008 campaign, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce wrote a letter requesting any communications that the White House had with Solyndra or Solyndra investors about the loan guarantee.
[Update, 9/19: As we previously noted, one of Solyndra’s major investors was a venture-capital fund linked to George Kaiser, a bundler for Obama’s 2008 campaign. To be more specific, the investor was Argonaut Private Equity, an investment arm of the George Kaiser Family Foundation—an anti-poverty charity funded by George Kaiser.
George Kaiser has made 16 visits to the president’s aides since 2009, as Bloomberg and others have pointed out. Kaiser, who is based in Tulsa, was also in D.C. the week before the Obama administration awarded Solyndra its loan guarantee. As the The Daily Caller notes, he logged four visits with White House officials in two days.
Kaiser’s charity told the Washington Post that George Kaiser is not personally invested in Solyndra and “did not participate in any discussions with the U.S. Government regarding the loan.”]
Democrats, meanwhile, have pointed out that Solyndra’s second-biggest private investor was a fund tied to the Walton family, which has typically funded Republicans. The San Jose Mercury News also reported that Solyndra’s CEO is registered as a Republican in California.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the email messages showed “there was urgency to make a decision about a scheduling matter,” referring to a press event. But he pushed back against implications that there had been any wrongdoing or special favors.
“It had nothing to do with—and there is no evidence to the contrary—nothing to do with anything besides the need to get an answer to make a scheduling decision,” Carney said.
Was lending to Solyndra a bad idea?
It was certainly a risky decision, and one that ended badly.
As iWatch News notes, the credit rating agency Fitch had assigned Solyndra a B+ credit rating back in 2008, which is below investment grade. iWatch also noted that the Obama administration approved the loan despite early warnings:
“If you guys think this is a bad idea, I need to unwind the WW [West Wing] QUICKLY,” wrote Ronald A. Klain, then chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, in an email sent March 7, 2009.
Three days later, an analyst at the Office of Management and Budget cautioned against moving too quickly. “This deal is NOT ready for prime time,” the analyst wrote in a March 10, 2009, email.
Only 10 days later, the Department of Energy formally announced its commitment to guarantee the loan, which the administration had fast-tracked as the first green-energy project backed by stimulus dollars.
On the other hand, a lot of private investors saw potential in Solyndra, and there was plenty of media buzz about the company.
In 2010, a story in the Wall Street Journal’s small-business section listed Solyndra as the “top clean-tech company,” citing the $535-million government loan in addition to $286 million in venture capital. The Journal also ranked Solyndra fifth on its “Next Big Thing” list for top venture-backed companies.
Still, when red flags continued to crop up, the Obama administration didn’t abandon its signature project. After a March 2010 audit noted Solyndra’s "recurring losses from operations, negative cash flows since inception” and “a net stockholders' deficit,” President Obama still toured the plant and touted its success at job creation and innovation.
“The true engine of economic growth will always be companies like Solyndra, will always be America’s businesses,” he said. (You can read about his tour on the White House blog.) And after the company later laid off nearly 180 employees, the Energy Department cast Solyndra’s financial woes as a “cash flow crisis that is very common for innovative start-up companies that are growing quickly,” iWatch noted.
Where is the latest news on Solyndra coming from?
The latest revelations stirring the pot on Solyndra have been from Republican investigators for the House Energy committee, which also held a public hearing yesterday.
Separate from the hearing, both ABC News/iWatch and the Washington Post published stories yesterday claiming exclusives on emails shared by Republican investigators. (It’s unclear whether the outlets were given the same email messages.) Here’s the Post:
The August 2009 e-mails ... show White House officials repeatedly asking OMB reviewers when they would be able to decide on the federal loan and noting a looming press event at which they planned to announce the deal. In response, OMB officials expressed concern that they were being rushed to approve the company’s project without adequate time to assess the risk to taxpayers, according to information provided by Republican congressional investigators.