February 27, 2024

In Rush to Assist Solyndra, U.S. Missed Warning Signs

“It’s here that companies like Solyndra are leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future,” the president declared in May 2010 to the assembled workers and executives. The start-up business had received a $535 million federal loan guarantee, offered in part to reassert American dominance in solar technology while generating thousands of jobs.

But behind the pomp and pageantry, Solyndra was rotting inside, hemorrhaging cash so quickly that within weeks of Mr. Obama’s visit, the company canceled plans to offer shares to the public. Barely a year later, Solyndra has become one of the administration’s most costly fumbles after the company declared bankruptcy, laid off 1,100 workers and was raided by F.B.I. agents seeking evidence of possible fraud.

Solyndra’s two top officers are to appear Friday before a House investigative committee where, their lawyers say, they will assert their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The government’s backing of Solyndra, which could cost taxpayers more than a half-billion dollars, came as the politically well-connected business began an extensive lobbying campaign that appears to have blinded government officials to the company’s financial condition and the risks of the investment, according to a review of government documents and interviews with administration officials and industry analysts.

While no evidence has emerged that political favoritism played a role in what administration officials assert were merit-based decisions, Solyndra drew plenty of high-level attention. Its lobbyists corresponded frequently and met at least three times with an aide to a top White House official, Valerie B. Jarrett, to push for loans, tax breaks and other government assistance.

Administration officials lay the blame for Solyndra’s problems in part on the global collapse in the price of solar energy components, which forced the company to sell its innovative solar panels at less than it cost to make them. Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill question whether the firm’s executives may have engaged in a cover-up of their precarious financial condition, allegations the company denies.

But industry analysts and government auditors fault the Obama administration for failing to properly evaluate the business proposals or take note of troubling signs already evident in the solar energy marketplace.

“It was alarming,” said Frank Rusco, a program director at the Government Accountability Office, which found that Energy Department preliminary loan approvals — including the one for Solyndra — were granted at times before officials had completed mandatory evaluations of the financial and engineering viability of the projects. “They can’t really evaluate the risks without following the rules.”

The Energy Department’s senior staff has acknowledged in interviews the intense pressure from top Obama administration officials to rush stimulus spending out the door.

“We had to knock down some barriers standing in the way to get these projects funded,” Matthew C. Rogers, the Energy Department official overseeing the loan guarantee program, said in March 2009, just days before Solyndra got its provisional loan commitment. Mr. Rogers said Energy Secretary Steven Chu had been personally reviewing loan applications and urging faster action on them.

Two committees of Congress, the Department of Energy’s inspector general and the Department of Justice are now investigating what went wrong in the Solyndra case. In Washington, it has set in motion a highly partisan battle over the benefits or failings of Mr. Obama’s stimulus program.

Some Republican lawmakers have raised questions about political interference in the loan decision, pointing to the fact that George B. Kaiser, a billionaire from Tulsa, Okla., was a fund-raiser for Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign and the backer of a foundation that is Solyndra’s leading investor. While he has met with top White House and administration officials multiple times, Mr. Kaiser and administration officials say they discussed issues related to his foundation, not Solyndra.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=bdef293c060197041303d5e3712f6a9e

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