The House Energy and Commerce committee released documents late Wednesday that show former General Services Administration administrator Martha Johnson had planned to meet with Solyndra in California at the same time GSA employees attended a lavish Las Vegas conference, but she changed her mind just days before her trip. An investigation into that conference and other wasteful spending at GSA led to Johnson’s resignation earlier this month.
Johnson did not attend the Solyndra meeting scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010, just days before the congressional midterm elections. Instead, travel records show she went to Portland, Ore., for three days to visit a GSA-sponsored construction project that taught women new job skills with stimulus money.
Republicans believe the timing is curious and contend the trip was scrapped due to Solyndra’s pending layoffs announcement, amid concerns by Democrats over political fallout from the layoffs.
According to documents released by the committee, Solyndra CEO Brian Harrison had informed the Department of Energy on Oct. 25 that the green energy company intended to announce layoffs three days later, on Oct. 28, the same day Johnson considered attending meetings. Energy and Commerce Republicans like Texas Republican Michael Burgess contend that Solyndra delayed the announcement until after the election at the request of DOE, and with the knowledge of the White House.
In multiple email communications released last year by the committee between employees at Solyndra’s largest investor, Argonaut Private Equity, senior investors discuss the looming layoffs, and communicate that the Department of Energy requested a delay for the layoff announcement until after the election. “The DOE has requested a delay until after the election (without mentioning the election),” one internal Argonaut email dated Oct. 27, 2010 stated.
Another investor emailed Oct. 30 recounting that DOE “did push very hard for us to hold our announcement of the consolidation to employees and venders to Nov. 3rd – oddly they didn’t give a reason for the date.” The layoffs were eventually announced on Nov. 3, 2010, the day after the election.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu was asked by the committee about the decision to delay the announcement late last year, but he denied that he was directly involved and said he would look into the matter.
“I was not part of that decision, and I certainly would not have been in favor of that decision,” Chu told the committee Nov. 17, 2011. “I don’t believe it’s a proper way to do business.”
A White House spokesman said the committee’s narrative explaining Solyndra’s delay is “an erroneous claim that has proven baseless,” although Chu referred the matter last month to the Investigator General at the Department of Energy as the committee waits for an answer.
In one document released by the committee from Oct. 25, GSA deputy administrator Susan Brita wrote a GSA spokesperson asking for details of Johnson’s upcoming trip to Solyndra.
“I’m coordinating with the Solyndra folks today to tie down the details. I’ll let you know if anything changes, but as of now the event is the morning of Thursday the 28th,” the spokesperson answered on Oct. 25. “I’m shooting for 10:30ish. MJ [Martha Johnson] will take a tour of the plant and speak to plant execs and workers. No formal remarks. I’m inviting a few targeted reporters who seem like good fits for this sort of thing.”
Solyndra is the now-bankrupt green energy company that the Obama administration had provided with a $535 million loan through the stimulus.
Asked about the cancelled Solyndra meeting, a White House spokesman said, “We don’t normally respond to or even get asked about events that never transpire.”
The White House and GSA both maintain that Johnson never met with Solyndra at any point during her tenure at GSA. There are no records that a meeting with Solyndra ever transpired.
Johnson also was set to receive an award in San Francisco the same week, but she had someone else accept the prize on her behalf.
ABC News reported Tuesday that a senior GSA official, Jeff Neely, who is currently on administrative leave, testified in a government investigation that Johnson missed the 2010 Western Regions Conference to attend “a meeting with Salindra [sic].” Other records prove Neely’s testimony incorrect, even if he had caught wind of Johnson’s planned meetings.
Administration officials said she did not meet there and provided records Wednesday morning that showed Johnson traveled to Portland, Ore., instead.
Johnson resigned abruptly after the GSA inspector general presented findings of abuse and waste of taxpayer dollars from the conference. Seven other officials have resigned, been fired or suspended in the wake of the scandal.
Multiple congressional hearings are scheduled beginning Monday to investigate the matter when Congress returns to session next week. Johnson and Neely are both invited to testify at two hearings on the House side of the Capitol.