Money and Democracy

Published — November 9, 2011 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Obama donor weighed asking White House to save Solyndra, emails say


A key investor in the failed solar power company Solyndra, who was also a political donor to Barack Obama, strategized with his top executives about whether and how they should use their contacts inside the White House to help their failing business venture, according to emails surfaced by Congressional investigators Wednesday, ABC News reports.

“The White House has offered to help in the past and we do have a contact within the White House that we are working with,” an adviser to billionaire Oklahoma oilman George Kaiser writes in an October 6, 2010 email. “I think the company is hoping we have some unnatural relationship that can open bigger doors — I’ve cautioned them that no one really has those relationships anymore.”

Kaiser replies to Steve Mitchell, a senior executive at Kaiser’s venture capital firm, that he should “pursue your contacts with the WH to follow up” but advises him not to directly ask, “Can you help with this?”

The release of the emails came as part of an escalating battle between Republicans in Congress and the White House over a subpoena for all of the internal communications about the $535 million government loan to Solyndra, a California solar panel manufacturer that went bankrupt. The White House has resisted the demand for documents, calling it a fishing expedition and an overreach for documents that have historically been protected. Congress has set Thursday as the deadline for the White House to comply with its demand for documents.

Within hours of the release of the internal emails between Kaiser and his advisers, Congressional investigators and administration officials were already disputing their significance.

Republicans in Congress argued that the emails rebutted the repeated assurances from the White House that Solyndra did not attempt to use political influence to secure its federal loan, or to get the loan restructured when the company started to falter — even though Kaiser had made 16 visits to the White House to meet with top officials.

“Documents recently obtained by the Committee directly contradict those statements,” said a statement released by Reps. Fred Upton (Mich.) and Cliff Stearns (Fla.), the Republicans who have been spearheading the investigation.

Administration officials, meanwhile, pointed to language in the emails that suggest Kaiser and his advisors saw no advantage in trying to pull strings for Solyndra inside the White House — and in fact, may have viewed such efforts as detrimental.

“I question your assumption that the WH is the path to pursue,” Kaiser wrote in one email. “I would see an appeal as only a last resort, and even then, questionable. We need to discuss.”

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said that “even the documents cherry-picked by House Republicans today affirm what we have said all along: this loan was a decision made on the merits at the Department of Energy.”

“Nothing in the 85,000 pages of documents produced thus far by the Administration or in these four indicates any favoritism to political supporters,” said Schultz. “We wish that House Republicans were as zealous about creating jobs as they were about this oversight investigation.”

Ever since Solyndra shut its manufacturing plant and filed for bankruptcy, the Obama administration has faced questions about the methods use to select recipients of billions of dollars worth of energy department loans and loan guarantees. The goal of the massive lending program has been to stimulate the growth of clean energy initiatives such as wind farms, solar arrays, and electric cars.

Republicans have alleged that political favoritism sullied the process by which loan recipients were selected. The Energy Department has always maintained that politics played no role in the loan process, and that loan guarantees were awarded on merit alone.

White House Counsel Calls Solyndra Subpoena Political

White House officials initially said they thought Kaiser’s White House meetings concerned his charity work. A review of visitor logs by the Sunlight Foundation showed that Kaiser was accompanied by experts on energy policy to at least three of the meetings. In October, a White House official familiar with an internal review of meetings between Kaiser and such senior presidential aides as Valerie Jarrett and Pete Rouse told ABC News that the White House now firmly believes that Kaiser never broached the subject of the Solyndra loan.

Kaiser has “said publicly that Solyndra was not discussed at these meetings, and we have no reason to dispute that,” the White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he had not been given approval to discuss the matter. “We understand that the conversations in these meetings were focused on the general policy priorities of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, including early childhood education and poverty, health care policy and energy policy.”

Earlier this month, the White House rejected the sweeping Congressional demand for documents related to Solyndra, accusing Republicans of playing politics.

White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said that the vote by the House and Energy Committee’s investigative subcommittee to subpoena all White House records on Solyndra, including emails, documents and memos, was “overbroad,” “unprecedented and unnecessary.”

“I can only conclude that your decision to issue a subpoena, authorized by a party line vote, was driven more by partisan politics than a legitimate effort to conduct a responsible investigation,” Ruemmler wrote to Reps. Upton and Stearns.

“The White House could have avoided the need for subpoena authorizations if they had simply chosen to cooperate,” responded Rep. Upton. “That would have been the route we preferred, and frankly, it would have been better for the White House to get the information out now, rather than continue to drag this out.

Upton said the request for documents was “reasonable.” “We are not demanding the President’s blackberry messages, as we are respectful of Executive Privilege,” said Upton. “What is the West Wing trying to hide? We owe it to American taxpayers to find out.”

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