Email Claims: Obama Promised Solyndra CEO He Would Look Into Buying Solyndra's Solar Panels for Gov’t Buildings

April 12, 2012 - 8:20 PM

solyndra

President Barack Obama visits Solyndra headquarters in Fremont, Calif., on May 26, 2010. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Less than three months after President Barack Obama’s May 26, 2010 visit to the Solyndra plant in Fremont, Calif., a Solyndra investor claimed in an e-mail to the company's new CEO, Brian Harrison, that during Obama's visit he had personally witnessed the president “actually promise” the company’s previous CEO, Chris Gronet, that he would “look into” having the federal government buy Solyndra's solar panels to place on federal buildings.

About a month and a half after Obama's visit to Solyndra, internal government emails show, an Energy Department official sought to arrange a meeting between the government’s procurement agency and the Solyndra CEO to whom Obama had talked.

“Getting business from Uncle Sam is a principal element of Solyndra's channel strategy," the investor, whose name was redacted, said in an Aug. 10, 2010 email to Solyndra CEO Harrison and Steve Mitchell, managing director of Argonaut Private Equity, which was Solyndra’s largest private investor.

"When Obama visited Solyndra in June, 2010, Chris Gronet spoke very openly to Obama about the need for installation of Solynra’s rooftop solar on U.S. government buildings," the investor wrote. “I heard Obama actually promise Chris [Gronet] that he would look into it when he returned to Washington. The point is that the government has to pay for energy no matter what. The capital funding to deploy a lot of rooftop solar on government buildings (say $300 million) just falls off the table in Washington anyway.”

Email: Solyndra PDF 1.pdf

Forty-nine days after Obama’s May 26, 2010 visit to Solyndra, Jonathan Silver, executive director of the program at the Department of Energy that had provided a $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra, wrote an e-mail to officials with the General Services Administration (GSA), the agency in charge of purchasing for the government.

“Solyndra makes an advanced solar roof top array for large commercial facilities and is now installed in locations all over the United States and Europe," said Silver. "Would you be willing to meet briefly with them?” Silver then forwarded this July 15, 2010 email to then-Solyndra CEO Chris Gronet--whom Obama had met with at the Solyndra plant.

Email: Solyndra PDF 4(1).pdf

These were two e-mail chains out of many obtained by the House Energy and Commerce Committee as part of its investigation of Solyndra. The Energy Department had provided a loan guarantee of $535 million to Solyndra on Sept. 3, 2009, with funds from the $787-billion stimulus act (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).

Two years later, on Aug. 31, 2011, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. On Sept. 8, 2011, the FBI raided the company’s headquarters in Fremont, Calif. The House committee is investigating the relationship between the company and the federal government. The Energy Department’s Office of Inspector General is also investigating the matter.

If the email’s claim of Obama’s statement to then Solyndra CEO Gronet is true, it would mean the administration not only subsidized Solyndra's operations with a loan guarantee but also considered using taxpayer dollars to buy Solyndra’s product and provide it with a major customer it apparently could not find in the free, competitive market.

The Solyndra investor who sent the email was apparently on friendly terms with the Obama White House. Government sources close to the investigation say he is the same investor who on Sept. 3, 2010 received a friendly e-mail from then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

That e-mail, which has no subject line, is from “Recos,” which apparently stands for Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff. It said: “Hey, [redacted name], it’s Rahm—great seeing you the other day, apologies it was so short. If you are ever in D.C. please let me know.”

Email: Solyndra PDF 2(1).pdf

White House spokesman Eric Schultz, to whom the White House press office referred questions about Solyndra, has not responded to numerous e-mail or phone inquires from CNSNews.com as to whether the investor’s e-mail is accurate in claiming that Obama promised Gronet he would look into the government buying Solyndra’s solar panels to put on government buildings. CNSNews.com provided the White House with a copy of the investor's e-mail to the Solyndra CEO.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, called Solyndra a “house of cards.” He said the company, “was looking for continued support from the ‘Bank of Washington’ as CEO Gronet, their first CEO who was there when President Obama visited Solyndra stated in an email.”

“At some point, the gravy train must end,” Stearns said in a written statement to CNSNews.com. “The amount of artificial government support for a company doomed to fail is alarming. It is not only odd but also unfair to other companies for the government to subsidize one company and then the government in turn buys their product, possibly as a sole source, without allowing for competition.”

‘Bank of Washington’

On Oct. 1, 2009,  about a month after the Department of Energy finalized its $525 million loan guarantee to Solyndra, Solyndra CEO Chris Gronet said in an email: “The Bank of Washington continues to help us!”

Email: Solyndra PDF 6(1).pdf

Gronet’s e-mail, obtained by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was sent to Argonaut Private Equity Managing Director Steve Mitchell. Argonaut is an investment firm that is part of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, and was a one-third owner of Solyndra.

In another Gronet e-mail on Feb. 10, 2010 to Solyndra investors, the CEO said he believed Jonathon Silver, executive director of the loan program for the Energy Department, was enthusiastic about sending another government loan Solyndra’s way.

“These images had a powerful impact on Jonathon, and he acknowledged that Solyndra is frequently cited as a success story by the DOE,” Gronet said, referring to the presentation the company provided the Department of Energy loan chief.

Email: Solyndra PDF 7(1).pdf

According to Gronet’s account of his meeting with Silver about a second loan, “Rather than challenge the merits of our application, he moved on to think through the political implications of a second loan guarantee. Jonathan asked us for assistance in crafting the message in response for four questions that he anticipated from various constituents.”

The “phase two” or second loan that Solyndra sought from the Energy Department in the $200-million range, never materialized.

George Kaiser wrote in a March 6, 2010 message to Mitchell, “a couple of weeks ago, when Ken [Levit, the executive director of Kaiser’s foundation] and I were visiting with a group of Administration folks in DC who are in charge of the Stimulus process (White House, not DOE) and Solyndra came up, everyone of them responded simultaneously about their thorough knowledge of the Solyndra story, suggesting it was one of their prime poster children.”

Email: Solyndra PDF 9(1).pdf

‘Get them to buy our panels’

An internal Argonaut memo dated May 8, 2010, warned that the Solyndra would not make an initial public offering (IPO) in 2010 as planned.

The Argonaut message said Gronet’s relationship with the government was one rationale for retaining him as CEO.

“Gronet probably would not have survived this in a normal situation but with an IPO in the near term, his close relationship with the DOE and the fact that he is the founder and the face of the company, it is not practical to make any high level changes in the short term,” the message obtained by the committee said.

Email: Solyndra PDF 10(1).pdf

Later that month, Obama spoke at the Solyndra plant in Fremont, Calif.

“The true engine of economic growth will always be companies like Solyndra, will always be America’s businesses,” Obama said in a May 26, 2010 speech at the plant. “But that doesn’t mean the government can just sit on the sidelines. Government still has the responsibility to help create the conditions in which students can gain an education so they can work at Solyndra, and entrepreneurs can get financing so they can start a company, and new industries can take hold.”

A picture of Obama touring Solyndra was “hanging in the White House, in the stair well in the West Wing. Gosh … no pressure,” wrote Levit, head of the Kaiser foundation to Mitchell of Argonaut on June 25, 2010, in an e-mail obtained by the committee. Mitchell later responded, “Get them to buy our panels. All they have to do is do some US content type of requirements for DOD procurement.”

Email: Solyndra PDF 11(1).pdf

CNSNews.com left messages at the George Kaiser Family Foundation for Kaiser, Levit and Mitchell. None of the three responded.

About a month and a half after Obama toured Solyndra, Jonathan Silver of the Energy Department contacted the GSA, inquiring about setting up a meeting between Solyndra executives and GSA officials.

“One of our loan guarantee recipients is a company called Solyndra,” Silver wrote in a July 14, 2010 e-mail to the GSA obtained by the House committee. “They received a $500 million loan guarantee from us to build a state of the art manufacturing plant in California. Solyndra makes an advanced solar roof top array for large commercial facilities and is now installed in locations all over the United States and Europe. Would you be willing to meet briefly with them? More on them below. I would personally appreciate it."

Among other things, the message "below" that Silver referred to said: "The company would like to work with you to promote policies that increase the use of solar energy technology throughout the government, and especially in the military, as a key driver to grow a domestic solar panel market for U.S. manufacturers."

Email: Solyndra PDF 4(1).pdf

The names of the GSA officials Silver contacted were redacted. One of these officials, in responding to Silver the next day in a message that was carbon-copied to four other GSA officials, noted the GSA got billions from the stimulus legislation for green buildings.

“We’re installing a lot of solar, not to mention green roofs, efficient heating and cooling, etc.,” the GSA official responded. “You probably know we got $5.5 billion in the Recovery Act funds, mostly to upgrade and green our buildings; we have about 260 projects going.

"Would be better for these people to meet our hands-on green project management people," the GSA official wrote. "I'll try to arrange it. Can you give me a point of contact for the Solyndra people and we'll contact them directly?"

Silver responded to the GSA official's request with an email that he also carbon-copied to Solyndra CEO Chris Gronet--thus putting Solyndra's top executive directly in contact with the federal government's purchasing arm.

"Thanks for your note," Silver wrote to the GSA official in this email. "You and your team are doing amazing things! I am copying Chris Gronet here. Chris is the CEO of Solyndra and I know your two teams will have a lot to discuss."

The same day Gronet received this email chain from Silver at the Energy Department, he forwarded it to Mitchell of Argonaut: “FYI below, 260 green projects in the process for U.S. gov’t buildings. Jonathon Silver is trying to help.”

Mitchell responded, “He better be! How on earth have we not been part of these projects from the beginning? Lots of catch up to do here. Let’s get all over it.”

Gronet agreed: “Yes, lots of catch up. Meeting with GSA is now set for next Wed. [Redacted] will attend. I am hosting some French dignitaries on the same day.” That Wednesday would have been July 21, 2010.

Energy Department spokesman Damien LaVera said the e-mail exchange between Silver and the GSA official is standard and routine business.

“Nothing in the e-mails you received from the committee suggests that Jonathon Silver did anything to promote the company with GSA,” LaVera told CNSNews.com in a written statement. “He simply connected the company with GSA so they can learn about how to apply for GSA procurements.”

LaVera declined to answer how many other solar panel companies were referred to the GSA.

Rahm Emanuel

Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. (AP Photo/CBS Face the Nation, Karin Cooper)

On July 26, 2010, the first of several news stories reported that Brian Harrison was replacing Gronet as CEO of Solyndra.

On Aug. 10, 2010, the Solyndra investor (whose name was redacted) sent his email to Solyndra's new CEO, Brian Harrison, and Steve Mitchell of Argonaut, and another person whose name is redacted, claiming Obama had promised Gronet that he would look into having the government buy Solyndra's panels.

The investor was responding to a previous email from a person whose name is also redacted who pointed out a recent report that the solar power firm SunPower had gotten a contract at an Air Force base.

"I wonder if 'buy American' rules held sway here," the writer of this previous email said. "If so, might Solyndra prioritize federal government business, where it could have an 'unfair advantage'? They may already be doing this, but if it's in fact an effective strategy, perhaps they ought to elevate its priority to the top."

In light of this message, the investor sent his email to Harrison, Mitchell and the third person: "When Obama visited in June, 2010 [it was actually May 26, 2010], Chris Gronet spoke very openly to Obama about the need for installation of Solyndra's rooftop solar on U.S. government buildings. I heard Obama actually promise Chris that he would look into it when he returned to Washington. The point is that the government has to pay for energy no matter what. The capital funding to deploy a lot of rooftop solar on government buildings (say $300 million) just falls off the table in Washington anyway."

Email: Solyndra PDF 1.pdf

Amy Craig, an attorney with Ramsey & Erlich which represents Gronet, told CNSNews.com Gronet would not have a public comment on the matter.

Harrison’s attorney Walt Brown also declined to comment for the story.

On Sept. 3, 2010, then-White House Chief of Staff Emanuel sent an email message to the investor whom government sources say is the same person who wrote the email claiming Obama had promised Gronet he would look into having the government buy Solyndra's.

“Hey [name redacted] it’s Rahm--great seeing you again the other day, apologies that it was so short. If you are ever in DC please let me know,” Emanuel wrote in the e-mail obtained by the committee.

Email: Solyndra PDF 2(1).pdf

Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago, did not respond to CNSNews.com, which called and e-mailed his press office at Chicago City Hall.

The Solyndra investor to whom Emanuel sent this email forwarded it to Solyndra CEO Harrison the same day he got it from Obama's chief of staff. “Let me know when and if I can get a message to him at the White House,” the investor said to Harrison.