Solyndra e-mails show Obama fundraiser discussed lobbying White House
By Joe Stephens and Carol D. Leonnig,
A major Obama fundraiser strategized with one of his associates last year about how to get White House and Energy Department assistance for a solar company in which his family funds had a substantial interest, according to e-mails released Wednesday by House Republicans.
Tulsa billionaire George Kaiser advised on how to press officials for federal contracts and additional loan assistance for Solyndra, the failed solar company that left taxpayers on the hook for $535 million in federal loans, the e-mails show. But they also appeared to back up Kaiser’s assertion that he did not directly lobby the White House and only advised associates on how to proceed.
The document releases came in two waves, first from Republicans on a House committee investigating Solyndra and then from angry committee Democrats, who argued that a selective release of materials gave a misleading picture of Kaiser’s role. Together, the e-mails and interview notes released by battling sides offered the most complete picture yet of Kaiser’s access to the Obama administration and his interest in helping Solyndra win additional federal support.
Kaiser worried in February 2010 that his involvement might be questioned if an investigative reporter should discover his connection to Solyndra and link it to the names on President Obama’s bundlers list, one e-mail shows. But his associate assured him that because he had not personally lobbied the White House, controversy could be averted.
Kaiser was a bundler for Obama’s 2008 campaign and has been a frequent White House visitor, using meetings with top officials to seek stimulus funds for Tulsa-based projects and to discuss his charitable projects, he has said. His family foundation was the biggest investor in Solyndra, but he has denied that he had any involvement in discussions of Solyndra’s 2009 federal loan.
Republicans investigating the failed solar company have seized on Kaiser’s Solyndra connection to allege that Obama donors got preferential treatment under the stimulus program. The White House has denied the allegation, saying that Solyndra’s loan and all other Energy Department loans were based on merit.
On Wednesday, Kaiser spokesman Renzi Stone responded to the new documents in an e-mail: “To reaffirm our previous public statements, George Kaiser had no discussions with the government regarding the loan to Solyndra.”
The e-mails show discussion between Kaiser and Steve Mitchell, the manager of his family investment fund, who also served on Solyndra’s board, about how to appeal to the White House for assistance in winning federal contracts.
In a separate e-mail, Kaiser describes a White House stimulus meeting at which Solyndra came up. Every official at the meeting had a “thorough knowledge” of Solyndra and described it as a poster child of their program, he wrote.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the e-mail threads were incomplete and out of context but supported the administration’s position that it had done nothing wrong.
“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,” Schultz said in a statement. “Nothing in the 85,000 pages of documents produced thus far by the Administration or in these four indicate any favoritism to political supporters.”
The new e-mails suggest more contact between Solyndra officials and White House officials than was previously known. They suggest that Kaiser and his advisers had hopes that Solyndra would secure a second federal loan.
In March 2010, Mitchell wrote Kaiser about Energy Secretary Steven Chu, describing his attempts to secure a second Energy Department loan. “Chu is apparently staying involved in Solyndra’s application and continues to talk up the company as a success story,” Mitchell wrote.
Energy officials say Chu was not involved in the second loan.
In a February 2010 exchange, Ken Levit, the head of Kaiser’s family foundation, wrote that he had met with the economic recovery team in Vice President Biden’s office and that they were “all big fans.”
Mitchell responded: “That’s awesome! Get us a doe loan.”
In an October 2010 e-mail exchange, Kaiser appeared to challenge a plan by his associates to press the White House for unspecified help. “The WH has offered to help in the past and we do have a contact within the WH that we are working with,” Mitchell wrote to Kaiser. Kaiser suggested that Chu might take offense at any attempt to go over his head.
“I question the assumption that the WH is the path to pursue when both of your issues are with the” Energy Department, Kaiser wrote to associates Oct. 6, 2010. He said presidential counselor Pete Rouse and Carol Browner, who then headed the White House energy office, might not choose to get involved in the issue.
“If they did, I am concerned that DOE/Chu would resent the intervention,” Kaiser wrote.
Mitchell replied, “The WH meeting is more about assistance in selling panels to the government than it is about getting the DOE loan revised.”
Kaiser responded that Mitchell should “pursue” his White House contacts “to follow up on the casual comment during the plant visit.” Obama had visited Solyndra’s Silicon Valley factory in May 2010 for a press event.