Feds Find Politically Connected Solar Company Lied for $500 Million in Federal Loans, Declines to Prosecute

Published August 31, 2015

A federal investigation has determined, top-leaders at Solyndra, a now defunct solar power panel manufacturer, lied to the federal government by repeatedly inflating sales figures in pursuit of a $535 million government loan guarantee. 

Solyndra’s 2011 bankruptcy cost taxpayers more than $500 million, left 1,100 workers at the company’s shuttered Fremont, California factory unemployed and brought heightened scrutiny to the Department of Energy green energy loan program. 

The four year federal investigation concluded Solyndra consistently overstated its sales prospects to win loan guarantees from the Department of Energy to build its factory. The investigation also found, the energy department missed numerous opportunities to spot the growing gap between the company’s upbeat reports and financial struggles.

“In our view, the investigative record suggests that the actions of certain Solyndra officials were, at best, reckless and irresponsible or, at worst, an orchestrated effort to knowingly and intentionally deceive and mislead the Department,” according to the report from the Energy Department’s inspector general. “We also found that the Department’s due diligence efforts were less than fully effective.”

Indirect Political Pressure Applied

During the time Solyndra was soliciting the federal loan guarantee, executives at and board members of the company were pouring tens of thousands of dollars in President Obama’s, and other prominent Democrats’, campaign funds. 

One of Solyndra’s main investors, billionaire George Kaiser was an ardent Obama supporter helping raise between $50,000 and $100,000 for the president’s election campaign, while also donated $53,500 of his own money to Obama’s 2008 election campaign, split between the DSCC and Obama For America. Kaiser also made several visits to the White House and appeared at some White House events next to Obama officials. 

Campaign finance records show Kaiser and Solyndra executives and board members donated $87,050 total to Obama’s election campaign. 

In September 2009, the department awarded its first loan to Solyndra, with Vice President Biden helping make the announcement.

In 2010 the midst of negotiations for more federal support, Solyndra communications director David Miller requested the White House add a factory tour to Obama’s itinerary during a trip to California. The president complied. In a speech at the factory, Obama cited the company as a model of success for his highly touted green-energy industry initiative saying Solyndra was “a testament to American ingenuity and dynamism and the fact that we continue to have the best universities in the world, the best technology in the world, and most importantly the best workers in the world.” 

“Less than a year ago, we were standing on what was an empty lot. But through the Recovery Act, this company received a loan to expand its operations,” Obama proclaimed at the time. “This new factory is the result of those loans.” 

Other Solydra executives contributing campaign funds to Obama or other democrats during the midst of Solyndra’s financial struggles included Ben Bierman, executive vice president of operations and engineering for Solyndra, who donated $5,500 and Karen Alter, senior vice president of marketing, who donated $23,000 to Obama’s election campaign. In addition, the Center for Responsive Politics, found Solyndra board members donated at least $27,400 to Democratic campaigns and affiliates. 

Wrongdoing, But No Prosecution

Though the Obama administration fast-tracked the solar startup’s $535 million loan application to the Department of Energy, a move later criticized by the Government Accountability Office, the Inspector General’s report did not find collusion between Solyndra executives and the White House or improper intervention on Solyndra’s behalf, rather the pressure on Energy Department employees to approve support for Solyndra was more subtle. According to the report, “Employees acknowledged that they felt tremendous pressure, in general, to process loan guarantee applications,” the report reads. “They suggested the pressure was based on the significant interest in the program from Department leadership, the Administration, Congress, and the applicants.”

Despite the report’s conclusions, the Department of Justice has declined to file charges against Solyndra management. The Washington Post notes a letter from Solyndra’s defense lawyers to Justice Department officials in Washington arguing the government’s case is weak, since it would be hard to show the government was a victim of false statements when agency officials ignored key financial information detailing the company’s struggles in the rush to approve the loan in time for a political press event.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.