House Subpoenas White House Documents on Solyndra Loan

By Fred Lucas | November 3, 2011 | 1:19 PM EDT

An auction sign is shown at bankrupt Solyndra headquarters in Fremont, Calif., Monday, Oct. 31, 2011 before Wednesday's auction. Solyndra received a one half billion dollar loan guarantee from the government before filing for bankruptcy in Sept. 2011. Solyndra made solar panels. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

( – The House moved Thursday to subpoena internal White House communications regarding the half-trillion dollar taxpayer-funded loan to the bankrupt solar panel firm Solyndra, a politically connected company now under investigation by the FBI.

House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations voted 14-9 along party lines to issue the subpoena after months of seeking White House cooperation on the matter without success.

“Unfortunately we’ve had nothing but eight months of frustration,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “There is a natural and appropriate tension between the legislative and executive branches of government. But what we have seen in the course of this investigation is downright obstruction.

“The administration has touted the tens of thousands of documents, most of them highly technical, that it has turned over, never mentioning that producing those documents was like extracting a tooth without anesthesia, unnecessarily painful and time consuming as well,” Upton said.

The documents produced thus far only reveal the involvement of White House staff when directly contacting outside agencies. Committee Republicans want White House staff communication with one another about Solyndra, which the White House has not provided.

In denying those documents, White House Counsel Kathryn H. Ruemmler, in an Oct. 25 letter to the committee, said “it has been well established for decades that the president has a strong constitutionally-rooted interest in preserving the confidentiality of Executive Branch deliberative communications.”

The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), said the subcommittee was acting in an unprecedented way.

“Apparently, what the committee really wants is a confrontation with the president not information for the investigation,” Waxman said. “This is an important investigation, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the committee is abusing its powers. With every hearing, the inquiry looks more like a rigged process, an investigation by partisan political stunt.”

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The White House announced last week that it was doing an internal investigation into the administration’s alternative energy loan guarantee program.

Solyndra executives were previously called to testify before the committee where they invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

After the firm failed to make a profit and laid off workers, the Energy Department restructured the loan agreement to allow for $75 million in private investor loans to be paid back before the $535 million taxpayers’ money. The company declared bankruptcy in September, just two years after the half-trillion loan. Shortly thereafter, the FBI raided its Fremont, Calif., headquarters.

Upton and Waxman, along with Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the chairman and ranking member of the subcommittee respectively, met Wednesday with White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler to seek to avoid a subpoena.

The White House asked the committee to limit the scope of its inquiry but would not agree to release specific communications.

The subpoena authorized by the vote is directed at White House Chief of Staff William Daley, the Vice President’s Chief of Staff Bruce Reed, and the custodian of records in their offices.

The committee has written letters to the White House seeking internal communication in the White House first on Oct. 5. The White House counsel’s office responded on Oct. 14 with a denial. The committee followed with another letter on Oct. 18, followed by another Oct. 25 letter from the White House denying the requests.

The Oct. 14 letter from Ruemmler said the administration through the Department of Energy, Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget provided about 70,000 pages of documents, while the White House provided 900 pages of documents regarding communications with agencies.

“Your most recent request for internal White House communications from the first day of the current administration to the president implicates longstanding and significant institutional Executive Branch confidentiality interests. Encroaching upon these important interests is not necessary,” the letter said.

The Oct. 25 letter from Ruemmler seemed to make the case that it was in the committee’s best interest for the White House to not provide internal communications.

“[W]e believe agency communications with the White House are the best source of information to accommodate the committee’s interest in the matter,” the letter said.

“We hold this view not only because such documents would be the most direct evidence of any involvement by the White House in agency decision-making regarding the Solyndra loan guarantee, but also because focusing on these documents would reasonably balance the committee’s interest in information about the loan with the Executive Branch’s interest in protecting the confidentiality of internal White House communication,” it added.

Documents have included the names of senior White House officials such as former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, former National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, and Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Vice President Biden.

Documents obtained by the committee thus far – some through an earlier subpoena – have shown that career employees of the Department of Energy and the Office of Management and Budget warned against providing the loan, but political officials had rushed the loan forward.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Energy Secretary Steven Chu publically praised Solyndra. Most documents were obtained through the Energy and Treasury departments.

Democrats said the White House is already cooperating. Republican lawmakers characterized the documents provided by the White House as highly technical, falling well short of what the committee sought.

“We have a right to know who was involved, what decisions were made, and why,” Stearns said. “At this point in time, I’m not confident that we will have a good faith response from the White House without issuing a subpoena. Now, the committee does not take this action lightly. Voting to authorize a subpoena is a necessary step in carrying out this committee’s constitutional obligations.”

However, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) believed there was sinister intent behind the entire investigation.

“This is about fossil fuel and nuclear fuel interests not wanting Americans using solar power. That’s what it’s all about. That’s the bottom line of this debate,” Markey said. “You have to see this story in two parts. BP, oil, a crime, not a word.

“We don’t want to meet these people. But here, with full cooperation coming from the White House, they insist on issuing subpoenas. That’s all you really need to know. That’s what this debate is all about. The fossil fuel and nuclear industry are trying to kill what is now the growing industry,” he added.

After the firm failed to make a profit and laid off workers, the Energy Department restructured the loan agreement to allow for $75 million in private investor loans to be paid back before the $535 million taxpayers’ money.

The company declared bankruptcy in September, just two years after the half-trillion dollar loan. Shortly thereafter, the FBI raided its Fremont, Calif., headquarters.

Questions have also surfaced about what role Democratic Party contributors might have played in the loan.

Argonaut Ventures holds 39 percent interest in Solyndra, the largest of any owner. Argonaut is owned by businessman George Kaiser, who also raised more than $50,000 for Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Meanwhile, Steven Spinner, an energy department advisor who helped raise $500,000 for Obama’s 2008 campaign, helped push the loan through, the Associated Press reported. ABC News reported that the law firm of Spinner’s wife Allison, Wilson Sonsini, received $2.4 million in federal funds for legal fees related to the $535 million Solyndra loan.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said the investigation is important because tax dollars are still at risk with other loans outstanding as part of this program and that the White House “has played a heavy hand from the very beginning” with the Solyndra loan.

“After a partisan attempt to block us from getting the information that we already got that’s been so important in releasing this information, now we’re trying to get more information that the White House still will not give us,” Scalise said.

“They keep saying we’ve given you enough already. The target of an investigation doesn’t get to decide what they are going to comply with and what they’re not. The White House is not above the law,” Scalise added.