WASHINGTON (AP) — A major donor to President Barack Obama discussed with White House officials a solar energy company that received a half-billion dollar federal loan and later went bankrupt, newly released emails show.
The emails released by a House committee appear to contradict repeated assurances by the Obama administration that the donor, George Kaiser, never talked about Solyndra Inc. with the White House.
Solyndra’s name came up at a White House meeting with Kaiser last year at a time when the California company was seeking a second federal loan, after it had already received a $528 million loan in 2009, the emails show.
The second loan was not approved. Instead, an investment venture controlled by Kaiser made a private loan that resulted in the firm and other investors moving ahead of taxpayers in line for repayment in case of a default by Solyndra.
Solyndra, the first renewable energy company to receive a federal loan under the 2009 stimulus law, declared bankruptcy in September and laid off its 1,100 workers, leaving taxpayers on the hook for more than a half-billion dollars.
The company’s implosion and revelations that administration officials rushed to complete the loan in time for a September 2009 groundbreaking have become an embarrassment for Obama and a rallying cry for GOP critics of his green energy program.
Kaiser, an Oklahoma billionaire, was a “bundler” for Obama’s 2008 campaign, raising between $50,000 and $100,000 for the president, records show. He also was a frequent White House visitor in 2009 and 2010. White House officials for months have denied that Kaiser talked about Solyndra during those visits. One the nation’s richest men, Kaiser owns an oil company and other energy interests and is chief donor to the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which invests in early childhood education and community health.
In one email released Wednesday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Kaiser said that when he and a foundation official visited the White House last year, officials showed “thorough knowledge of the Solyndra story, suggesting it was one their prime poster children” for renewable energy.
In another email, a Kaiser associate appears confident that Energy Secretary Steven Chu would approve a second loan for Solyndra.
“It appears things are headed in the right direction and Chu is apparently staying involved in Solyndra’s application and continues to talk up the company as a success story,” Steve Mitchell, managing director of Kaiser’s venture-capital firm, Argonaut Private Equity, wrote in a March 5, 2010, e-mail. Mitchell also served on Solyndra’s board of directors.
The emails and other released Wednesday were obtained through a request to major investors for Solyndra-related documents, said Sean Bonyun, a spokesman for the Energy Committee.
The emails were released as the White House faces a Thursday deadline to respond to a committee subpoena for White House documents related to Solyndra.
White House officials accused the GOP-led committee of misleading the public by making it appear that Kaiser pushed for the original 2009 loan rather than the emergency loan last year, which was never approved.
“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,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in an email Wednesday. “Nothing in the 85,000 pages of documents produced thus far by the administration or in these four (pages) indicate any favoritism to political supporters. We wish that House Republicans were as zealous about creating jobs as they were about this oversight investigation.”
Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who heads a subcommittee that is investigating the Solyndra loan, said the emails contradict White House claims that Kaiser did not actively lobby White House officials on Solyndra.
“It is clear from these documents that Kaiser and his employees enjoyed ready access to the West Wing of the White House and exercised influence throughout the loan process,” Stearns said
A spokesman for the Kaiser Family Foundation denied that Kaiser had lobbied for a Solyndra loan.
“To reaffirm our previous public statements, George Kaiser had no discussions with the government regarding the loan to Solyndra,” the spokesman, C. Renzi Stone, said in an email.
Hours after committee Republicans released the emails, Democrats on the panel issued an eight-page memo that disputed nearly all of the GOP claims. The memo quotes an interview Kaiser gave Tuesday by videoconference with Republican and Democratic staffers on the committee.
In the interview, Kaiser stated, “I have never lobbied for Solyndra.”
The Democratic memo cites several emails not included by Republicans in their release of documents Wednesday, including one in which Kaiser tells Ken Levit, executive director of the Kaiser foundation, that he sat next to Obama for two hours at a Las Vegas dinner fundraising dinner that also included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“I talked in general about the Chinese and solar, but I didn’t want to get too specific with him,” Kaiser wrote of his Oct. 22, 2010 dinner with Obama. “I never mentioned Solyndra directly.”
The emails also show Kaiser chiding subordinates who urged him to personally lobby White House officials on behalf of Solyndra. Kaiser’s foundation had invested $400 million in the solar company.
“I question the assumption that WH is the path to pursue when both of your issues here are with DOE,” Kaiser wrote in an email to Mitchell, referring to the White House and the Energy Department. If the White House intervened, Kaiser added, “I am concerned that DOE/Chu would resent the intervention and your problem would get more difficult.”
Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Diana DeGette of Colorado said that far from showing a concerted effort by Kaiser to lobby on behalf of Solyndra, the emails and the staff interview with Kaiser show the opposite.
To declare that Kaiser exercised improper influence “is a stretch, to say the least,” they wrote.