Solyndra docs: Politics infused energy programs

This story was written by Joe Stephens and Carol D. Leonnig.

Linda Sterio remembers the excitement when President Obama arrived at Solyndra last year and described how his administration's financial support for the plant was helping create hundreds of jobs. The company's prospects appeared unlimited as Solyndra executives described the backlog of orders for its solar panels.

Then came the August morning when Sterio heard a newscaster announce that more than a thousand Solyndra employees were out of work. Only recently did she learn that, within the Obama administration, the company's potential collapse had long been discussed.

"It's not about the people; it's politics," said Sterio, who remains jobless and at risk of losing her home. "We all feel betrayed."

Since the failure of the company, Obama's entire $80 billion clean-

technology program has begun to look like a political liability for an administration about to enter a bruising reelection campaign.

Meant to create jobs and cut reliance on foreign oil, Obama's green-technology program was infused with politics at every level, The Washington Post found in an analysis of thousands of memos, company records and internal e-mails. Political considerations were raised repeatedly by company investors, Energy Department bureaucrats and White House officials.

The records, some previously unreported, show that when warned that financial disaster might lie ahead, the administration remained steadfast in its support for Solyndra.

The documents reviewed by The Post, which began examining the clean-technology program a year ago, provide a detailed look inside the day-to-day workings of the upper levels of the Obama administration. They also give an unprecedented glimpse into high-level maneuvering by politically connected clean-technology investors.

They show that as Solyndra tottered, officials discussed the political fallout from its troubles, the "optics" in Washington and the impact that the company's failure could have on the president's prospects for a second term. Rarely, if ever, was there discussion of the impact that Solyndra's collapse would have on laid-off workers or on the development of clean-energy technology.

"What's so troubling is that politics seems to be the dominant factor," said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "They're not talking about what the taxpayers are losing; they're not talking about the failure of the technology, whether we bet on the wrong horse. What they are talking about is 'How are we going to manage this politically?' "

The administration, which excluded lobbyists from policymaking positions, gave easy access to venture capitalists with stakes in some of the companies backed by the administration, the records show. Many of those investors had given to Obama's 2008 campaign. Some took jobs in the administration and helped manage the clean-energy program.

Documents show that senior officials pushed career bureaucrats to rush their decision on the loan so Vice President Biden could announce it during a trip to California. The records do not establish that anyone pressured the Energy Department to approve the Solyndra loan to benefit political contributors, but they suggest that there was an unwavering focus on promoting Solyndra and clean energy. Officials with the company and the administration have said that nothing untoward occurred and that the loan was granted on its merits.

Most documents that have been made public in connection with a congressional investigation relate to the period after the loan was granted. The process began in the George W. Bush administration but resulted in the first loan in the program being granted under Obama. As a result, many factors that led to Solyndra winning a half-billion-dollar federal loan remain unknown.

White House officials said that all key records regarding Solyndra's loan approval have been released.

Officials acknowledged that some of the records provide an unvarnished view that they might have preferred to keep private -- such as a senior energy adviser's reference to a conference call about Solyndra as a "[expletive] show," or a company investor writing that when Solyndra was mentioned in a meeting, Biden's office "about had an orgasm."

Officials said those unflattering disclosures reinforce their position that they are not hiding their actions and that, despite the blemishes, nothing suggests political considerations affected the original decision to extend the loan to Solyndra. They stressed that the administration disregarded advice to avoid political problems by replacing senior Energy Department managers and moving to abort Obama's visit to Solyndra.

"Everything disclosed . . . affirms what we said on day one: This was a merit-based decision made by expert staffers at the Department of Energy," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement.

Officials said that concern for workers was reflected in the administration's decision to allow Solyndra employees to receive aid under a program for workers displaced by foreign competition.

"When Solyndra's liquidity crisis became clear, the Department of Energy underwent a robust effort to find a viable path forward for the company," the White House's prepared statement said. "This administration is one that will fiercely fight to protect jobs even when it's not the popular thing to do."

Star power in D.C.

Like most presidential appearances, Obama's May 2010 stop at Solyndra's headquarters was closely managed political theater.

Obama's handlers had lengthy e-mail discussions about how solar panels should be displayed (from a robotic arm, it was decided). They cautioned the company's chief executive against wearing a suit (he opted for an open-neck shirt and black slacks) and asked another executive to wear a hard hat and white smock. They instructed blue-collar employees to wear everyday work clothes, to preserve what they called "the construction-worker feel."

White House e-mails suggest that the original idea for "POTUS involvement" originated with then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago, did not respond to a request for comment from The Post.

Well beyond the details of the factory photo op, raw political considerations surfaced repeatedly in conversations among many in the administration.

Just two days before the visit, Obama fundraiser Steve Westly warned senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett that an appearance could be problematic. Westly, an investment fund manager with stakes in green-energy companies, said he was speaking for a number of Obama supporters in asking the president to postpone the visit because Solyndra's financial prospects were dim and the company's failure could generate negative media attention.

"The president should be careful about unrealistic/optimistic forecasts that could haunt him in the next 18 months if Solyndra hits the wall," Westly wrote. Westly did not respond to a request for comment from The Post.

Similar concerns arose repeatedly among officials inside the White House. One staffer at the Office of Management and Budget suggested to a colleague that the visit could "prove embarrassing to the administration in the not too distant future." Even Ron Klain, Biden's chief of staff, acknowledged "risk" in the trip.

But administration officials ultimately waved off the jitters, after assurances from Energy Department officials that their policy was sound and that Solyndra's troubles would be fleeting. After Obama's trip, the administration hung a photo from his visit on a wall in the West Wing, to underscore good things to come.

Solyndra's financial picture did not improve, however, and by year's end the company was crumbling. Its investors pitched bailout plans, seeking help from what a Solyndra executive referred to as the "Bank of Washington" -- his apparent term for U.S. taxpayers. The Energy Department rebuffed the plans, at least initially.

In late 2010, Solyndra board member Steve Mitchell told his associates that Energy Department officials had conceded that additional financing was necessary yet said in private meetings that they lacked the political muscle to deliver it. "The DOE really thinks politically before it thinks economically," Mitchell concluded. A spokesman for Mitchell said he would have no comment for this article. An Energy Department spokesman said that all decisions regarding the loan were based on merit.

Solyndra eventually realized that it had to lay off workers to stay afloat -- no small step for a company that the president had backed to create jobs in a recession. But records indicate that the Energy Department urged company officials to delay the move until after the contentious November 2010 midterm elections, which imperiled Democratic control of Congress.

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