Sept. 15, 2011 — -- The White House maintained Thursday that charitable work was the focus of a series of West Wing meetings between top Obama aides and a major investor in the solar energy firm Solyndra -- four of which occurred in the days before Solyndra won approval for a $535 million government loan.
"He was involved in a lot of charitable efforts and it's our understanding that while we haven't looked into every meeting and -- that he might have had here, that that was the focus of his conversations, generally speaking, at the White House," Press Secretary Jay Carney said in response to questions from ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper.
The series of meetings with Oklahoma billionaire and Obama fundraiser George Kaiser, documented in White House visitor logs, have spurred interest among the administration's Republican critics, who have asked whether politics played a role in the ill-fated energy loan. Solyndra, the California solar panel company that benefitted from the half-billion dollar government gamble, declared bankruptcy earlier this month.
Kaiser, one of the company's chief investors, was a major "bundler" for Obama's presidential campaign. In the weeks before Solyndra became the first recipient of a "green energy" loan, Kaiser visited the offices of such senior aides as Valerie Jarrett, Austan Goolsbee and Pete Rouse. He visited the White House a dozen more times after the loan was approved.
Kaiser is also the man behind the George Kaiser Family Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty through investments in early childhood education, community health, social services and civic enhancement.
Administration officials have told ABC News that they have no reason to doubt an earlier statement by Kaiser, in which he said he did not seek to use political influence to help Solyndra secure the Solyndra loan. They also noted that another major investor in Solyndra was an investment fund overseen by the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame, which tends to contribute to Republican causes.
Earlier this week, the prospect the taxpayers may have lost more than $500 million on the loan became the focus of a contentious Congressional hearing. House investigators released a report that included excerpts from dozens of emails between budget analysts and the White House. Several appeared to show the White House was pushing for the analysts to complete their due diligence of the deal quickly, so they could coordinate an announcement from either Obama or Vice President Biden.
"We would prefer to have sufficient time to do our due diligence reviews and have the approval set the date for the announcement rather than the other way around," an Aug. 31, 2009, email from OMB to an aide to Biden said.
During the White House briefing Thursday, Tapper asked if it was "standard operating procedure for the White House to get so involved in a loan" being handled by the Department of Energy.
"Well, I have to correct you because there's no evidence that the White House was involved in the loan," Carney said. "The White House was involved in trying to find out when a decision would be made, so they could make -- staff here could make a decision about the vice president's having an event." Carney said the scheduling of White House events involving the president and vice president is a complex process that "engages a lot of people."
Obama WH Followed Progress of Solyndra Loan
Solyndra's solar panel factory had been heralded as a centerpiece of the president's green energy plan -- billed as a way to jump start a promising new industry. Internal emails uncovered by investigators for the House Energy and Commerce Committee show the Obama administration was keenly monitoring the progress of Solyndra's $535 million 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.
Beginning in March, ABC News, in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News, was first to report on simmering questions about the role political influence may have played in Solyndra's selection as the Obama administration's first loan guarantee recipient. Federal auditors had flagged the loan, saying some applicants had benefitted from special treatment.
WATCH the Original ABC News Report on Solyndra
The emails were uncovered by investigators for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which held hearings on the Solyndra loan Wednesday. The Republican-led House has been investigating the Obama administration's green energy loan program for months. That probe took on new urgency two weeks ago, when Solyndra abruptly shut its doors and laid off 1,100 employees. Last week, the FBI raided the factory as part of a joint investigation with the Energy Department's inspector general.
"This is not right. This is not good," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who chairs the House committee that is examining the loan. "It makes you sick to your stomach. This is taxpayer money."
The White House has argued that any effort to finance start-up businesses in a relatively new field like solar energy is bound to include risky ventures that could fail. They reject the notion being pushed by Republicans that Solyndra was chosen for political reasons.
"I think that it is clear that folks understood at DOE that they were supposed to make their decision on the merits and do whatever they were supposed to do to kick the tires on the decision," an administration official told ABC News. "Folks were interested in being updated as to whether the decision-making process was completed."
The White House also noted to ABC News that the Bush administration was the first to consider Solyndra's application and that some executives at the company have a history of donating to Republicans.
Questions About Solyndra Loan
Peter Lynch, a New York-based solar energy analyst, told ABC News it took only a cursory glance through Solyndra's prospectus to see there was a problem with their numbers.
"It's very difficult to perceive a company with a model that says, well, I can build something for six dollars and sell it for three dollars," Lynch said. "Those numbers don't generally work. You don't want to lose three dollars for every unit you make."
In 2008, Solyndra, then just three years old, pushed ahead with its application for government backing to build a new plant to produce its unique solar panels. An outside rating agency, Fitch, gave Solyndra a B+ credit rating that August. Two months earlier, in June 2008, Dun & Bradstreet issued a credit appraisal of the company. Its assessment: "Fair."
Those are not top-of-the-line scores, Fitch Ratings spokeswoman Cindy Stoller told the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News, which has been investigating the deal in partnership with ABC News since March. She could not discuss the Solyndra review specifically, but said of a B+ rating: "It's a non-investment grade rating." She provided a company ratings definition, showing that B+ falls between a "highly speculative" B and "speculative" BB.
Asked about those ratings, and how significantly the department viewed the risk, Energy officials said Monday the department conducted "extensive due diligence" on the application, which included consideration of the Fitch rating.
"We believed the rating, which is used to inform our analysis of potential risks associated with the loan, was appropriate for the size, scale and innovative nature of the project and was consistent with the ratings of other innovative start-up companies," said Damien LaVera, an Energy Department spokesman.
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"The Department conducted exhaustive reviews of Solyndra's technology and business model prior to approving their loan guarantee application," LaVera said. "Sophisticated, professional private investors, who put more than $1 billion of their own money behind Solyndra, came to the same conclusion as the Department: that Solyndra was an extremely promising company with innovative technology and a very good investment."