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Critics say e-mails contradict White House on Solyndra

From Deirdre Walsh and Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 5:53 PM EST, Wed November 9, 2011
President Obama made a highly publicized visit to a Solyndra facility last year, before the company's bankruptcy thwarted repayment of government loans.
President Obama made a highly publicized visit to a Solyndra facility last year, before the company's bankruptcy thwarted repayment of government loans.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Democrats accuse House Republicans of deceptive partisan tactics
  • A House panel is probing more than $500 million in loan guarantees to bankrupt Solyndra
  • The White House says politics played no role in approving the Solyndra loans
  • House Republicans say Kaiser discussed Solyndra with White House officials

Washington (CNN) -- Congressional Republicans investigating the collapse of solar energy firm Solyndra said Wednesday they have documents contradicting an administration claim that the case was not discussed at White House meetings involving a key investor and fundraiser for President Barack Obama.

In a letter to White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan and Cliff Stearns of Florida said the documents show that Solyndra investor and Obama fundraiser George Kaiser or his associates had discussions with administration officials about the company, which went bankrupt after getting more than $500 million in federal loan guarantees.

Ruemmler has refused to provide all documents demanded under a subpoena last week by the House Energy Committee, chaired by Upton, and its investigating subcommittee, chaired by Stearns.

"We note that the White House has repeatedly stated that no political influence was brought to bear with regard to Solyndra, and that Mr. George Kaiser, a Solyndra investor and Obama fundraiser, never discussed Solyndra during any of his seventeen visits to the White House," the letter said.

"Documents recently obtained by the committee directly contradict those statements," the letter continued.

A White House response Wednesday said the documents fail to show that any political influence was exerted by the White House on the decision by the Department of Energy to provide Solyndra with the federal loan guarantees.

Democrats on the committee, in their own letter of response, said the Republican claims were deliberately deceptive as part of a campaign seeking political gain, rather than conducting a proper investigation.

"We support an investigation of Solyndra, but it should be fair and even-handed," said the letter by Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Diana Degete of Colorado. "The tactics you are using -- holding empty chair hearings, humiliating witnesses, denying Democratic requests for witnesses, seeking gratuitous conflicts with the White House, and now releasing misleading excerpts from emails -- are unfair and reflect poorly on the committee's objectivity."

Upton's committee provided copies of e-mails between Kaiser and some of his associates that mentioned meetings at the White House where Solyndra was discussed.

One e-mail from Kaiser, dated March 5, 2010, refers to talks that he held with White House officials in charge of the stimulus process and says that "Solyndra came up" and was "one of their prime poster children" for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

In another e-mail, dated February 27, 2010, Kaiser associate Steve Mitchell tells colleague Ken Levit to "get us a" Department of Energy loan.

Levit responded the same day in an e-mail to Mitchell, saying: "They about had an orgasm in (Vice President Joe) Biden's office when we mentioned Solyndra."

The company received an Energy Department loan last year to build a factory in Fremont, California, that produced state-of-the-art solar panels.

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Solyndra filed for bankruptcy in late August and closed its doors, putting more than 1,000 people out of work after it had received $535 million in loan guarantees.

The bankruptcy leaves the federal government unlikely to get the loan money back. Obama had touted the company in a widely publicized visit last year.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the documents cited by Republican critics showed that the decision to provide Solyndra with loan guarantees was made by the Department of Energy.

"Even the documents cherry-picked by House Republicans today affirm what we have said all along: This loan was a decision made on the merits at the Department of Energy," Schultz said. "Nothing in the 85,000 pages of documents produced thus far by the administration or in these four indicate any favoritism to political supporters."

The letter from Waxman and Degette also said that Upton and Stearns mischaracterized information from the committee's investigation, including testimony from Kaiser.

Last week, Ruemmler refused to comply with the House panel's subpoena, saying it was "driven more by partisan politics than a legitimate effort to conduct a responsible investigation."

Ruemmler did not rule out disclosing additional information related to Solyndra, saying that "we remain willing to work with the committee to accommodate its legitimate oversight interests in a balanced manner."

At the same time, Ruemmler said unequivocally that the subpoena, as written, was unacceptable.

"The committee's extremely broad request for documents -- now a subpoena -- is a significant intrusion on executive branch interests," Ruemmler wrote.

In response, Upton issued a statement Friday that accused the Obama administration and House Democrats of mounting "partisan roadblocks to hide the truth from taxpayers."

"Solyndra was a jobs program gone bad, and we must learn the lessons of Solyndra as we work to turn our economy around and put folks back to work," Upton's statement said. " ... What is the West Wing trying to hide? We owe it to American taxpayers to find out."

A government official said the White House favors a narrower request. A letter from a group of House Democrats, sent to the committee before it issued the subpoena, said the White House would be willing to share documents related to campaign contributors' influence on the decision to grant or restructure the Solyndra loan guarantee, plus the White House's involvement in deciding whether to make such a conditional commitment or close the loan guarantee.

Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Diana DeGette of Colorado wrote then that issuing the subpoena -- as it was written -- was unnecessary, given what they called "substantial progress" in recent talks between committee members and the White House about disclosing more information on Solyndra.

White House Chief of Staff William Daley recently announced a 60-day independent review of the state of the Energy Department's loan portfolio. The review will include recommendations about how to improve the loan monitoring process.

The review will be headed by Herb Allison, a veteran of both the Obama and the most recent Bush administrations who was chosen by Obama to oversee Bush's Troubled Asset Relief Program, among other efforts.

CNN's Tom Cohen contributed to this report.

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