The Obama administration, which gave the solar company Solyndra a half-billion-dollar loan to help create jobs, asked the company to delay announcing it would lay off workers until after the hotly contested November 2010 midterm elections that imperiled Democratic control of Congress, newly released e-mails show.
The announcement could have been politically damaging because President Obama and others in the administration had held up Solyndra as a poster child of its clean-energy initiative, saying the company’s new factory, built with the help of stimulus money, could create 1,000 jobs. Six months before the midterm elections, Obama visited Solyndra’s California plant to praise its success, even though outside auditors had questioned whether the operation might collapse in debt.
President Obama has put a special spotlight on clean technology during his time in the White House, personally visiting and praising 22 companies for their work on energy innovation and efficiency in high-profile trips. These visits made up more than half of Obama's out-of-town travel to businesses.
As the contentious 2010 elections approached, Solyndra found itself foundering, and it warned the Energy Department that it would need an emergency cash infusion. A Solyndra investment adviser wrote in an Oct. 30, 2010, e-mail — without explaining the reason — that Energy Department officials were pushing “very hard” to delay making the layoffs public until the day after the elections.
The announcement ultimately was made on Nov. 3, 2010 — immediately following the Nov. 2 vote.
E-mails describing the events were released Tuesday as part of a House Energy and Commerce Committee memo, provided in advance of Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s scheduled testimony before the committee’s investigative panel on Thursday. As a result of the 2010 elections, that committee is now controlled by Republicans, whose aggressive nine-month investigation into Solyndra has focused partly on whether politics played a role in the company’s selection to receive a federal loan.
Amid the fallout from the company’s shutdown in August, the White House has said tough scrutiny of the department’s oversight efforts is warranted and it has begun its own independent review of the loan program. Although the president has publicly supported Chu, senior White House officials in February circulated an outside adviser’s recommendation that Chu be replaced because of anticipated political controversy over the energy loans.
On Tuesday, Energy Department spokesman Damien LaVera declined to confirm events described in the e-mails or to identify who at the department may have urged the delay in the layoff announcement. He stressed, however, that “decisions about this loan were made on the merits.” In an interview aired Tuesday on NPR, Chu said that politics did not enter into any decisions he or his staff made regarding Solyndra and that there was no way to foresee the company’s demise.
The White House declined to comment Tuesday on whether senior White House officials attempted to influence the timing of the layoff announcement. “These e-mails, again cherry-picked by House Republicans, reflect nothing more than the White House being given a heads-up about an upcoming press release from Solyndra,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.