WASHINGTON — The Obama administration wanted the failing solar energy company Solyndra to delay announcing an early round of employee layoffs until after the 2010 midterm elections, according to newly released emails.
An October 2010 email from a Solyndra investment adviser to a colleague said Energy Department officials were pushing “very hard” to delay making the layoffs — an early sign of the company’s financial woes — public until Nov. 3, 2010 —the day after the midterm elections.
“Oddly they didn’t give a reason for that date,” the email states. The email was released Wednesday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, along with dozens of other emails related to the Solyndra investigation.
Last week, the White House said congressional Republicans were using the Solyndra investigation as a partisan “political football.” Spokesman Jay Carney said at the time that GOP lawmakers have “cherry-picked” certain documents trying to create controversy over a decision-making process that the White House insists involved no political influence.
Solyndra announced dozens of layoffs on Nov. 3, 2010, after the election, but continued to receive federal assistance. The company, which received a $528 million federal loan in 2009, closed its doors on Aug. 31, 2011 and laid off its 1,100 workers.
The Oct. 30, 2010, email was from Steve Mitchell, managing director of Argonaut Private Equity, a major Solyndra investor, to George Kaiser, an Oklahoma billionaire who founded Argonaut and other firms. Kaiser was a “bundler” for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and a frequent White House visitor in 2009 and 2010. Argonaut invested $400 million in the solar company. Mitchell also served on Solyndra’s board of directors.
Ken Levit, executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, also received the email.
Energy Department spokesman Damien LaVera on Tuesday declined to confirm events described in the emails or to identify who at the Energy department may have urged the delay in the layoff announcement. He said “decisions about this loan were made on the merits.”
Energy Secretary Steven Chu is scheduled to testify before the House energy panel on Thursday.
Solyndra’s implosion and revelations that administration officials rushed to complete the loan in time for a September 2009 groundbreaking have become an embarrassment for Obama and a rallying cry for GOP critics of his green energy program.
The Republican-controlled energy panel has subpoenaed White House communications on Solyndra and has released thousands of pages of emails related to the company.
The emails released Wednesday show that then-Solyndra CEO Brian Harrison warned the Energy Department on Oct. 25, 2010 that he intended to announce layoffs in three days. He wrote that reporters were asking about rumored layoffs and the possible closure of one of its two factories.
Five days later, Mitchell wrote his email to Kaiser and Levit, the Kaiser foundation executive.
Kaiser has said he played no part in helping Solyndra win the 2009 loan, but emails released last week show that he discussed Solyndra with the White House on at least one occasion. Kaiser also directed Mitchell and others how to approach the White House and Energy Department to help Solyndra deal with its financial problems.
In the fall of 2010, Solyndra executives and investors warned the Energy Department that they needed emergency financing to keep the company operating past December.
In the Oct. 25 email, Harrison said news of the company’s financial problems “is starting to leak outside Solyndra.”
Harrison’s email was forwarded to Jonathan Silver, then-director of the Energy Department’s loan program. The email was then forwarded to Chu’s chief of staff, Rod O’Connor, and then to White House energy adviser Carol Browner and Ron Klain, chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden.
Emails released last week show that top officials at the White House circulated a plan calling for Chu’s ouster as the administration braced for a political storm brewing over Solyndra.
An email from a clean-energy activist and former official in Obama’s 2008 campaign said that Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was a brilliant man but “not perfect” for other critical DOE missions, including creating jobs.
A White House spokesman said the plan to oust Chu was not taken very seriously.