After spending months touting the Obama administration's decision to loan $535 million to the California solar energy upstart Solyndra, top officials took a new tack Wednesday while testifying before Congress about the company's abrupt shut-down and bankruptcy: the loan, they said, was actually the Bush administration's idea. The Energy Department's top lending officer told Congress that the Solyndra loan application was not only filed during President Bush's term, but it surged towards completion before Obama took office in January 2009.
"By the time the Obama administration took office in late January 2009, the loan programs' staff had already established a goal of, and timeline for, issuing the company a conditional loan guarantee commitment in March 2009," said Jonathan Silver, who heads the Energy loan program.
Republicans pushed back hard against this version of events, unearthing internal Energy Department emails that indicate the panel evaluating the loans had made the unanimous decision to shelve Solyndra's application two weeks before Obama took office.
Blaming the failed loan on the Bush administration marked an abrupt turn for the Energy Department, which had championed the Solyndra loan as a model for its efforts to build a so-called "green energy" industry that creates jobs and safeguards the environment. The Solyndra loan was so central to this strategy that the administration initially planned to have Obama personally announce it, and later sent the president to the company's solar panel manufacturing facility in Fremont, California to celebrate its work.
The path taken by Solyndra's application for a massive government loan was just one of several questions explored by members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigative subcommittee Wednesday. Members grilled Silver and Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, as to why the initial loan was approved, and why the Solyndra deal was restructured earlier this year. The restructuring came at a time when the company was already showing signs of financial stress, with Chinese competitors offering similar products for less money.
The House investigation into the matter had been underway well before the company collapsed. Federal auditors had already questioned the methods the energy department was using to analyze the loans. And beginning in March, ABC News, in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News, began reporting on simmering questions about the role political influence may have played in Solyndra's selection as the Obama administration's first loan guarantee recipient.
On Tuesday, some of the fruits of that investigation began to surface in anticipation of the hearing.
Emails uncovered by investigators for the House Energy and Commerce Committee showed that the Obama White House closely monitored the Energy Department's deliberations over the $535 million government loan, which was backed by an Obama fundraiser. The internal emails uncovered by investigators showed the administration was keenly monitoring the progress of the loan, even as analysts were voicing serious concerns about the risk involved.
"This deal is NOT ready for prime time," one White House budget analyst wrote in a March 10, 2009 email, nine days before the administration formally announced the loan.
"If you guys think this is a bad idea, I need to unwind the W[est] W[ing] QUICKLY," wrote Ronald A. Klain, who was chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, in another email sent March 7, 2009. The "West Wing" is the portion of the White House complex that holds the offices of the president and his top staffers. Klain declined comment to ABC News.