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Solyndra Merits, Not Politics, Guided Solar Loan

Thu, 11/17/2011 - 12:13pm
MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press

An unapologetic Energy Secretary Steven Chu defended a half-billion-dollar government loan to a solar-panel manufacturer that went bankrupt, even as he told a House committee Thursday he was unaware of dozens of key details that led to the debacle over Solyndra Inc.

Under hours of hostile questioning from Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chu declined several opportunities to say he was sorry, but acknowledged that in hindsight the deal was "extremely unfortunate" and "regrettable."

"Certainly knowing what I know now, we'd say 'no,'" Chu said during a daylong hearing before the energy panel's subcommittee on investigations. "But you don't make decisions fast-forwarding two years in the future and then go back. I wish I could do that."

Congressional Republicans have been using Solyndra's bankruptcy to score points ahead of next year's elections, accusing the Democratic administration of wasteful spending and having a misguided energy program.

Chu insisted that politics played no role in his department's decision to loan Solyndra Inc., $528 million before it went bankrupt and laid off 1,100 workers.

Testifying under oath on a widening controversy, Chu took responsibility for the disastrous 2009 loan, but said he was unaware of many details about the loan or financial problems that Solyndra faced — including predictions by Energy Department staff two years ago that the company was likely to face severe cash-flow problems.

Chu repeatedly said he didn't know until recently of problems with Solyndra or suggestions of political interference on the company's behalf by the White House or Energy Department officials.

"I am aware of it now," he said at least five times.

Chu refused to apologize for the loan debacle, calling it "extremely unfortunate" but based on factors beyond his control. He blamed the company's demise on "totally unexpected" market changes — including an influx of cheap imports from China and the collapse of the European market for solar panels — that led to a steep decline in the price of Solyndra's product.

Solyndra was the first renewable-energy company to receive a loan guarantee under the 2009 stimulus law, and the Obama administration frequently touted it as a model for its clean energy program. Chu attended a 2009 groundbreaking when the loan was announced, and President Barack Obama visited the company's headquarters last year.

Since then, the company's implosion and revelations that the administration hurried a review of the loan in time for the groundbreaking has become an embarrassment for Chu and Obama.

Contradicting assertions by several committee Republicans, Chu said no one from the White House ever contacted him to make a political decision on the loan.

"I want to be clear: Over the course of Solyndra's loan guarantee, I did not make any decision based on political considerations," he said.

Still, Chu acknowledged mistakes and said that if he had the chance to do it again, he would not have approved the $528 million loan.

Chu also said he doesn't expect taxpayers will recover much of the money lost in the transaction.

Again and again, Chu expressed ignorance of issues related to the loan or the Obama administration's handling of it. For instance, Chu said he did not know until this week that some unidentified Energy Department officials had urged Solyndra to delay an early round of layoffs until after 2010 midterm elections.

"I was not part of that decision, and I certainly would not have been in favor of that decision," he said.

Rep. John Sullivan, a Republican, asked Chu how closely he was involved in the loan process.

He has to approve the loans and be briefed on them, Chu replied, "and I ask questions about the loans as they come up."

Chu also denied he was influenced by a major Obama campaign donor, George Kaiser, an Oklahoma billionaire who invested $400 million in the solar company through an investment vehicle connected to a family foundation. Kaiser has said he played no part in helping Solyndra win the 2009 loan, but emails released last week show he discussed Solyndra with the White House on at least one occasion. Kaiser also directed business associates on how to approach the White House and Energy Department to help Solyndra deal with its financial problems.

Chu told lawmakers he did not know who Kaiser was when the loan was approved. He says he is aware of Kaiser now, in the wake of media reports about Kaiser's investment in Solyndra.

Associated Press writer Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report. Matthew Daly can be followed at http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC.

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