Congressional Republicans and Democrats investigating the failed solar firm Solyndra released dueling sets of emails Wednesday that the Republicans claim show a major Obama fundraiser attempting to influence the White House and the Democrats insist show just the opposite.
The email salvos are part of an escalating battle between Republicans and Democrats over the direction of a Congressional investigation into a $535 million government loan to Solyndra. The White House has already rebuffed a GOP-driven subpoena for all internal communications about the company, calling it a politically motivated fishing expedition, a stance echoed by Congressional Democrats.
Reps. Cliff Stearns, R.-Fla., and Fred Upton, R.-Mich., who have been spearheading the Solyndra investigation, released emails from Obama donor George Kaiser that they say rebut the repeated assurances from the White House that Solyndra did not attempt to use political influence to secure its federal loan, or to get the loan restructured when the company started to falter.
"We note that the White House has repeatedly stated that no political influence was brought to bear with regard to Solyndra, and that Mr. George Kaiser, a Solyndra investor and Obama fundraiser, never discussed Solyndra during any of his seventeen visits to the White House," said Reps. Upton and Stearns in a letter sent to White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler. "Documents recently obtained by the Committee directly contradict those statements."
They pointed to emails in which they say Kaiser, an Oklahoma oil billionaire, strategized with his top executives about whether and how they should use their contacts inside the White House to help their failing business venture.
"The White House has offered to help in the past and we do have a contact within the White House that we are working with," an adviser to Kaiser who also sat on Solyndra's board wrote in an October 6, 2010 email released by Upton and Stearns. "I think the company is hoping we have some unnatural relationship that can open bigger doors -- I've cautioned them that no one really has those relationships anymore."
Kaiser replied to Steve Mitchell, a senior executive at Kaiser's venture capital firm, Argonaut Ventures, and managing director at Solyndra, that he should "pursue your contacts with the WH to follow up" but advises him not to directly ask, "Can you help with this?"
Democrats from the House Energy and Commerce Committee responded to Upton and Stearns by blasting the Republicans' "selective release of emails" -- and by surfacing their own store of Kaiser emails.
In a letter to their Republican counterparts, Rep. Henry Waxman, D.-Calif., and Diana DeGette, D.-Colo., said that Kaiser had been interviewed by Congress Tuesday about the emails referenced by the Republicans. "In key instances, he directly contradicted your interpretations of the documents you released today," said the letter. "But you also failed to disclose this. This is wrong and an unfair smear of Mr. Kaiser."
Waxman and DeGette said that Kaiser had insisted during his interview with members of the committee that he had never lobbied for Solyndra or asked anyone in the White House to intervene on Solyndra's behalf, and that his meetings were on behalf of his charity, the George Kaiser Family Foundation. By telling Steve Mitchell to "pursue your contacts with the WH," according to the Democrats, Kaiser was telling the Solyndra board member that the solar firm should handle its own lobbying.
"Mr. Kaiser's account is confirmed by the internal e-mails the Committee received," said Waxman and DeGette. "They show Mr. Kaiser was concerned about any appearance that he was trying to influence the White House and rejected suggestions that he intervene on behalf of Solyndra."
The Democrats quoted a February 2010 email exchange between Kaiser and Ken Levit, the executive director of his charity, in which Kaiser mused that an "investigative reporter" might make an association between his early support for Obama the presidential candidate, his investment in Solyndra and the federal government's financial support for the firm.
Levit responded that he'd also wondered about that possibility. "The truth is," he wrote, "that the name of the company has never crossed your lips with the Administration (not so with Congress) and we've certainly never lobbied for the company."
In an exchange from October 2010, Steven Mitchell of Argonaut Ventures and the Solyndra board asked Levit and Kaiser if they could help arrange a meeting with interim White House chief of staff Pete Rouse.
"Are you open to helping Solyndra secure a meeting?" said Mitchell.
Levit and Kaiser responded with separate emails criticizing the idea, with Levit calling it "tricky," and saying that Kaiser's relationship with the White House "is based on completely different issues," and Kaiser saying the Department of Energy would resent the intrusion: "I would see an appeal as only a last resort and, even then, questionable."
After quoting from the emails, Reps. Waxman and DeGette close their letter to Reps. Upton and Stearns by saying they support a Solyndra investigation, "but it should be fair and evenhanded. The tactics you are using ... are unfair and reflect poorly on the Committee's objectivity."
"We are growing increasingly concerned about the partisan way in which you are conducting the investigation," wrote the Democrats.
The Obama administration took a similar position. White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Wednesday that "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."
"Nothing in the 85,000 pages of documents produced thus far by the Administration or in these four indicates any favoritism to political supporters," said Schultz. "We wish that House Republicans were as zealous about creating jobs as they were about this oversight investigation."
In response to the new email release, Renzi Stone, a representative for Kaiser, told ABC News, "To reaffirm our previous public statements, George Kaiser had no discussions with the government regarding the loan to Solyndra."
Ever since Solyndra shut its manufacturing plant and filed for bankruptcy, the Obama administration has faced questions about the methods use to select recipients of billions of dollars worth of energy department loans and loan guarantees. The goal of the massive lending program has been to stimulate the growth of clean energy initiatives such as wind farms, solar arrays, and electric cars.
Republicans have alleged that political favoritism sullied the process by which loan recipients were selected. The Energy Department has always maintained that politics played no role in the loan process, and that loan guarantees were awarded on merit alone.
White House officials initially said they thought Kaiser's White House meetings concerned his charity work. A review of visitor logs by the Sunlight Foundation showed that Kaiser was accompanied by experts on energy policy to at least three of the meetings. In October, a White House official familiar with an internal review of meetings between Kaiser and such senior presidential aides as Valerie Jarrett and Pete Rouse told ABC News that the White House now firmly believes that Kaiser never broached the subject of the Solyndra loan.
Kaiser has "said publicly that Solyndra was not discussed at these meetings, and we have no reason to dispute that," the White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he had not been given approval to discuss the matter. "We understand that the conversations in these meetings were focused on the general policy priorities of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, including early childhood education and poverty, health care policy and energy policy."
Earlier this month, the White House rejected the sweeping Congressional demand for documents related to Solyndra, accusing Republicans of playing politics.
White House counsel Ruemmler said that the vote by the House and Energy Committee's investigative subcommittee to subpoena all White House records on Solyndra, including emails, documents and memos, was "overbroad," "unprecedented and unnecessary."
"I can only conclude that your decision to issue a subpoena, authorized by a party line vote, was driven more by partisan politics than a legitimate effort to conduct a responsible investigation," Ruemmler wrote to Reps. Upton and Stearns.
"The White House could have avoided the need for subpoena authorizations if they had simply chosen to cooperate," responded Rep. Upton. "That would have been the route we preferred, and frankly, it would have been better for the White House to get the information out now, rather than continue to drag this out.
Upton said the request for documents was "reasonable." "We are not demanding the President's blackberry messages, as we are respectful of Executive Privilege," said Upton. "What is the West Wing trying to hide? We owe it to American taxpayers to find out."