President Obama's Department of Energy helped finance several green energy companies that later fell into bankruptcy -- but not before the firms doled out six-figure bonuses and payouts to top executives, a Center for Public Integrity and ABC News investigation found.
Take, for instance, Beacon Power Corp., the second recipient of an Energy Department loan guarantee in 2009. In March 2010, the Massachusetts energy storage company paid cash bonuses of $259,285 to three executives in part due to progress made on the $43 million energy loan, Securities and Exchange Commission records show. Last October, Beacon Power filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
EnerDel, maker of lithium-ion battery systems, landed a $118.5 million energy grant in August 2009. About one-and-a-half years later, Vice President Joe Biden toured a company plant in Indiana and heralded its taxpayer-supported expansion as one of the "100 Recovery Act Projects That Are Changing America."
Two months after Biden's visit, EnerDel corporate parent Ener1 paid $725,000 in bonuses to three executives -- including $450,000 to then-CEO Charles Gassenheimer, who led Biden on the tour. This January, Ener1 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
At least two other firms that benefited from Energy Department funding -- one a $500,000 grant, the other a $535 million loan guarantee -- handed out hefty payouts to executives and later went bankrupt.
The Department of Energy, asked about the payments examined by the Center and ABC, said it is troubled by the practice and intends to convey that message to loan recipients.
"We don't begrudge companies or their executives for their success, but it is irresponsible for executives to be awarded bonus compensation when their workers are losing their jobs," said department spokeswoman Jen Stutsman. "We take our role as stewards of taxpayer dollars very seriously, and as such, we will make clear to loan recipients our view that funds should not be directed toward executive bonuses when the rest of the company is facing financial difficulty."
The bonuses and bankruptcies come against a growing wave of trouble for companies financed with Energy Department dollars. Of the first 12 loan guarantees the department announced, for instance, two firms filed for bankruptcy, a third has faced layoffs and a fourth deal never closed.
The nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste counts nearly 20 energy companies that have gotten federal loan guarantees or grants that have run into financial trouble ranging from layoffs to losses to bankruptcies. An outside consultant hired by the White House said the Energy Department's loan pool includes $2.7 billion in potentially risky loans and suggests the agency hire a "chief risk officer" to help minimize problems.
To watchdogs, the pattern of firms awarding bonuses only to file for bankruptcy raises questions about how well the Energy Department chose its winners, and how thoroughly it kept an eye on them once selected.
"Giving a bonus to the executives under these circumstances is rewarding failure with our money with no chance of getting it back," said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste.
"Taxpayers need some representation here. They didn't really get it."
The setbacks have sharpened the focus on the president's environmental mission, already under scrutiny following the collapse of Solyndra Inc., the first recipient of an Obama green energy loan.