Patrick B. Pexton
Patrick B. Pexton
Ombudsman

Post reporters, shining a light on the Solyndra scandal

This year, as we all pause to give thanks, I’m thankful for Post reporters such as Carol Leonnig and Joe Stephens. For a year, they’ve been dogging the trail of Solyndra, the bankrupt solar-panel maker that was the first recipient of President Obama’s green-technology, loan-guarantee program under the 2009 stimulus act. About 1,100 workers lost their jobs, and taxpayers are on the hook for as much as $535 million, because the company failed Aug. 31.

Obama made a highly publicized visit to the Fremont, Calif.-based manufacturer in May 2010 to tout its success, just weeks after auditors expressed doubts that the company was financially viable.

Patrick B. Pexton

Pexton served as Post ombudsman from March 2011-March 2013.

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Half a billion dollars is a lot of money, by the way. It could cover the average one-month cost of food stampsfor 1.8 million households.

The scandal at base is about how taxpayer money is used, or misused, by government. It shows how the White House uses companies for its own purposes and how companies try to use the White House to serve their aims.

It shows how far political appointees, and particularly the senior-most aides in the West Wing, will go to push the chief executive’s agenda on a sometimes slow but generally conscientious federal bureaucracy. And it shows how wealthy people who help fund a president’s election campaign get special access to the White House.

Leonnig and Stephens had help in their examination from Republicans, and Democrats, in Congress. The House Energy and Commerce Committee, led by Republicans after the 2010 elections, has been investigating Solyndra since February. The panel has demanded and subpoenaed White House internal e-mails on Solyndra, which Leonnig and Stephens have pored over and deciphered for readers.

But Leonnig and Stephens have separately obtained documents on Solyndra and the Energy Department’s loan-guarantee program from their own sources — people The Post has agreed not to name. The reporters have used these documents to push the story further and tie it to fundraisers. They have also consulted forensic accountants to help analyze how sick Solyndra was when its executives, and Obama officials, were publicly touting the company’s rosy future.

And they have shown that an administration that promised to be transparent, accountable and responsible often isn’t.

The Post’s coverage began because Leonnig, Stephens and National Politics and Government Editor Marilyn W. Thompson looked into the president’s visits to companies around the country in 2009 and early 2010. In a groundbreaking June 26 story, the reporters noted how often Obama was visiting clean-technology companies and that some of these companies had political ties to him.

Turns out, for example, that two investment funds linked to George Kaiser, a Tulsa billionaire and a major contributor to Obama’s 2008 campaign, controlled 39 percent of Solyndra. And Kaiser had been a frequent visitor to the White House, meeting with former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and special adviser to the president Valerie Jarrett.

Kaiser and the White House have been firm in saying that Kaiser himself never lobbied or talked about Solyndra to White House officials, and no e-mails have turned up suggesting that.

Senior Obama officials, including Jarrett, were warned before Obama’s visit to Solyndra that the company had problems. Still, the trip went forward. Now the FBI, two inspectors general and two congressional committees are investigating the scandal.

Leonnig and Stephens are modest; the Solyndra stories are complicated in their details but straightforward in their journalism, the two say. “We talk a lot about taxpayers’ dollars. We focus on that: Was our money wasted?” Leonnig says. And Stephens adds that the reporting is not magic: “Follow the money, follow the influence, report what happened.”

Solyndra warned the White House that Post reporters were digging. The company’s head of corporate communications, David Miller, e-mailed an aide to Jarrett this May to say: “I thought this was done, but a Washington Post reporter, Joe Stephens, has been poking at us for several months regarding the DOE investigation and various other issues. He seems to be focused on whether one of our investors used influence to get us the presidential visit and beyond that influenced the DOE in any way. That is not true and we have repeatedly told him that is not the case.”

Stephens, and Leonnig, didn’t take no for an answer.

It is this kind of journalism, hard-hitting regardless of who is in power, for which The Post should be known. It earns respect and wide readership, and keeps government accountable.

Let’s give some thanks to reporters like Leonnig and Stephens. While we’re eating turkey leftovers, they’ll be pecking at their laptops, and poking hard at the powerful.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

 
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