Dems try to counterattack on Solyndra
By DARREN SAMUELSOHN | 9/14/11 8:34 AM EDT
Republicans are having a field day with internal White House emails showing the administration tried to rush a loan approval for Solyndra so Vice President Joe Biden could make the announcement.
But Democrats have a message of their own: The Republicans backed the California solar company too.
Lobbyists with tight GOP connections helped the clean technology start-up company headed by a registered Republican. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s former GOP governor, was there for pivotal moments as Solyndra was born. And Solyndra got its federal footing thanks to a program in the 2005 energy law signed by President George W. Bush and passed by a Congress controlled entirely by Republicans.
"This loan guarantee was pursued by both the Bush and Obama administrations," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
Democrats argue they were lulled into complacency by Solyndra executives who said all would be well once they restructured operations. They say they didn’t really start paying attention until this month’s FBI raid on the company and its late August bankruptcy protection filing, which darkened the skies around a poster child of the administration's green jobs agenda.
"The alarm bells in the fire station didn't go off until there was evidence of a fire," said Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. "The reality is no one outside the company had any idea they were in such dire straits.”
Obama officials are in deep with Solyndra.
Late Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that e-mail exchanges between White House officials and the Office of Management and Budget show a dash to get Solyndra's $535 million federal loan guarantee moving before a September 2009 groundbreaking that Biden participated in via video teleconference. House GOP investigators shared the messages with the Post, including one from an OMB official who wrote about “the time pressure we are under to sign-off on Solyndra.”
Obama himself visited the Fremont facility in May 2010 and the White House even produced a documentary touting the role that the federal stimulus law played in Solyndra hiring 1,100 new employees — people who last month ended up getting pink slips.
Weiss’s Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group with close ties to the White House, released a timeline of events Tuesday showing several pivotal moments during the Bush administration when Solyndra got government help. House Republicans investigating the company, Weiss said, “ought to make sure they talk to Sam Bodman too,” referring to Bush’s second-term Energy secretary.
Democrats also noted that Schwarzenegger attended Solyndra’s groundbreaking. (Photos show him holding up a ceremonial shovelful of dirt with Obama Energy Secretary Steven Chu). In addition, the White House snapped photos of Schwarzenegger talking with Obama during the president's visit to the company.
In fact, Solyndra’s top brass, its board and its paid lobbyists bring close ties to both political parties.
President and CEO Brian Harrison is a registered Republican. Billionaire George Kaiser, an Obama campaign bundler, was one of the venture capitalists who poured private funding into the clean technology startup.
And another venture capital firm, Madrone Capital Partners, which is tied to the GOP-leaning Walton family, was one of 10 firms that helped Solyndra raise about $144 million in November 2008.
In Washington, Victoria Sanville, one of the company’s two in-house lobbyists, had previously worked for four House Republicans: Sam Graves of Missouri, Peter Roskam of Illinois, John Sweeney of New York and George Gekas of Pennsylvania.
When it comes to campaign contributions, Solyndra officials gave much more to Democrats while still giving money to some Republicans, according to a POLITICO analysis of donation data compiled by OpenSecrets.org.
Since 2008, for example, Sanville’s D.C. lobbying partner Joe Pasetti, a former staffer on the Joint Economic Committee, and his family members have donated a combined $2,000 to each of several lawmakers: Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Reps. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.). He also gave Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) $2,500.
Solyndra board member Thomas Baruch donated $10,250 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the same period, plus $2,500 to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), $2,400 to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), $2,000 to Boxer, $1,400 to then-Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and $2,400 to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
Other Solyndra donors giving to Democrats include Benjamin Bierman, the executive vice president of operations and engineering, who has given $2,750 to the DSCC since 2008, and Chris Gronet, Solyndra’s founder and former CEO. Gronet, who along with Sullivan had his home raided earlier this month by the FBI, donated $1,000 to Boxer during her 2010 reelection campaign.
On the other hand, John Walecka, another board member, donated $2,400 in 2010 to California Republican Tom Campbell in his unsuccessful GOP primary bid for the chance to run against Boxer.
"They're clearly not just focusing on one side of the aisle in advocating on behalf of their interests," said First Street Research Group's Alex Bronstein-Moffly, author of a report released Monday on Solyndra's $1.3 million in lobbying efforts.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight subpanel is set to hold a hearing on Solyndra Wednesday morning.
House Democrats said they resisted some of the Republicans' earlier investigatory work on Solyndra in part because of the rosy picture presented by company officials who did a summertime lobbying swing through Washington. Oversight subcommittee ranking member Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said Democrats voted in July against issuing subpoenas to the administration because the Office of Management and Budget and DOE had given assurances they were moving along with document production.
"We felt like the subpoena was premature and maybe a little political," DeGette said. "But now I think the investigation is fully warranted and I'm looking forward to see how the hearing comes out tomorrow. I think there are real questions to be asked both about this loan but also about the program in general."
Republicans are also giving the Democrats reason to start swinging back. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), the chairman of the oversight subcommittee, said Tuesday that he wants heads to roll in the Obama administration.
"They should be very open and find out: Is there criminality, who's at fault and somebody should be fired," he said.
In an op-ed in POLITICO, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus made it clear the GOP wants to extract a political price from the solar company’s woes.
"The White House’s relationship with Solyndra, it turns out, was a mix of corporate favoritism, big-money politics, liberal ideology and Chicago-style deal making,” he wrote. “As the Obama administration dealt favors, the American taxpayers got stuck with the $535 million bill."
Democrats say they’re not about to back down now, especially after Priebus and the RNC went public this week with a not-so-subtle opposition research document titled: "The Solyndra File: Corruption At the Heart of the Obama Economic Strategy."
"It was just a congressional oversight issue," said a Democratic source close to the administration. "It was an issue of a company that went belly up. As soon as the RNC jumped the shark, they were the ones who made this a political issue and made it an option to look at both sides."
Addressing the campaign donations, Stearns said he didn’t think Solyndra officials should have been filling lawmakers’ bank accounts when they were pushing Congress for help.
"I don't understand how a company that gets a guarantee for over half a billion dollars, why would they be giving money out," he said. "They should not have been giving money out. I think it's inappropriate for them to be lobbying Congress."
But Stearns said he wasn’t ready to call on his colleagues to return the Solyndra money.
"Let's see how this plays out," he said. "If there's criminality then I think they have to start looking at why did they accept money from a criminal operation. That's the bottom line. "
DeGette said she was open to looking more closely at how campaign donations factored into Solyndra’s rise.
"Alternative energy is a big business,” she said. “And I think there have been a lot of campaign contributions to both parties. That doesn't necessarily mean there was any undue influence. That's what we're going to have to find out."
This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 5:38 a.m. on September 14, 2011.
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