The Washington Post

Lawmakers question loan to solar company

Republican lawmakers demanded at a hearing Wednesday that Obama administration officials explain why they poured millions of additional taxpayer dollars into a favored solar company this year after the firm warned it was near collapse.

Facing a stream of criticism that they had failed taxpayers, two senior administration officials defended their actions and a $535 million federal loan to Solyndra, a solar-panel manufacturer. They said they tried to make the best decisions they could at each juncture as the company’s financial troubles escalated.

When it won federal support in 2009, the company was a centerpiece of President Obama’s stimulus initiative to develop clean-
energy technologies. It shuttered its plant two weeks ago, leaving taxpayers obligated to pay back the half-billion-dollar loan.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee questioned the administration’s decision this year to extend a lifeline to the struggling California firm. In February, the administration helped Solyndra in refinancing its $535 million federal loan, allowing the government to release another $67 million to the company.

Early this year, company executives confided to government officials that Solyndra would probably go out of business without an emergency infusion of cash. Federal reviewers internally warned the administration that it could be far cheaper for the government to allow Solyndra to liquidaterather than bet more public money on the company recovering, according to e-mails released by the committee.

“Should someone be fired here?” Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, asked Jonathan Silver, head of the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program, and Jeffrey D. Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

“I want to find out what happened to this money and who is responsible for putting these dollars at risk,” Stearns said.

A leading Democrat and clean-
energy supporter, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), also questioned why more dollars were put at risk when the Energy Department knew Solyndra’s dire financial situation.

“That was not an easy decision, and we need to ask if the right choice was made,” Waxman said. “We need to know how this happened, who should be held accountable and how to avoid future risk to taxpayer dollars.”

Silver and Zients said the February call was a hard one.

“The DOE then faced a difficult choice,” Silver told the committee. “(A) to refuse the restructuring terms . . . ensuring the company would close, or (B) to allow the restructuring, giving it and its more than 1,000 workers a fighting chance and the government a higher chance of recovery” of taxpayer money.

The Energy Department pushed for the restructuring despite preliminary warnings from OMB staff members that restructuring Solyndra could cost taxpayers $168 million more than liquidation.

The Energy Department said costs would be far lower; Zients said OMB ultimately concluded the Energy Department had a “reasonable” plan.

“There was a reason to believe it was reasonable at that time,” Zients said. “At the end of the day, OMB staff used their best expertise.”


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Carol Leonnig covers federal agencies with a focus on government accountability.
Joe Stephens joined The Washington Post in 1999 and specializes in in-depth enterprise reporting.


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