“As much as I wish to be able to answer the members’ questions, I have been advised by my counsel that it is the better course for me to assert my constitutional right to decline to answer questions under the Fifth Amendment. While I hope to have an opportunity to assist this committee’s inquiry in the future, on the advice of my attorney, I must respectfully decline to answer any questions put forth to me by this committee.” Solyndra CEO Brian Harrison, Hearing on the Committee on Energy & Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, 9/23/11.
As expected, both Solyndra’s CEO and CFO invoked their Fifth Amendment rights to decline to testify during their appearance at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing last Friday. This hearing was another episode in the collapse tale of Solyndra. It was also another indicator of how politicized this story has become, which is bad news to anyone hoping the right lessons will be learned from the fall of Solyndra.
First, let’s be clear, it’s not just the politicians that should be blamed for politicizing this story – it’s also Solyndra. In many ways, the company brought this on itself when it decided to actively lobby for a federal loan guarantee. As the New York Times reported, public records show Solyndra spent nearly $1.9 million on lobbying activities over a period of 43 months from 2008 to 2011. The Times adds that Solyndra “hired two in-house lobbyists and aggressively pushed for White House meetings to plead its case.” It’s not an illegal practice, but it is definitely one that invites trouble when things go wrong, which is exactly what happened here.
The main problem in the politization of the story of Solyndra is that both Republicans and Democrats follow party lines. As a result even if they bring up good points that should be taken into consideration, these points get lost with all the noise about the other points they make which are nothing but politically-based.
For example, let’s look at the Republicans. Some of them bring up some very good questions about the approval process of the loan, including the short due diligence process before approving the loan and the follow-up afterwards. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla. asked on Friday “what did DOE understand about Solyndra’s financial situation? Did DOE know what they were doing and did they properly monitor Solyndra and the taxpayer money being used to prop Solyndra up?” These are all serious questions that require an answer, no matter what political side of the isle they’re coming from.
There is also the issue of White House intervention– were the DEO or the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) influenced by political pressure from the President’s cabinet? There is some evidence that the OMB reviewers were asked by White House officials when they would be able to decide on the loan– the question is how hard they pushed.
Yet, Republicans want to connect the dots in a way that fits their political agenda (and some would say their donors as well). You won’t hear from them how Solyndra is another example of the problematic relationship between politics and business. Instead they use it is an example showing why government investment in clean technology is a bad idea, why the stimulus program is a failure, or why the government’s intervention in general is wasteful and worthless.
With Democrats, the situation is exactly the opposite. They support clean energy and understand the need to invest in clean tech. Yet, you won’t find them inquiring about approval practices at the DOE or the relationship between Solyndra and the administration. Instead, they’re more focused on the private investors that invested over $1 billion in Solyndra and why they thought it was good investment. This is a good question, but of course one that doesn’t deal directly with the real issues of this story. So why do Democrats focus on it? Again, it’s all about political agenda.
Can the Solyndra story be shifted to a practical debate or are we doomed to have this debate only as part of a political war between the two parties? Unfortunately, there’s a better chance it’ll be the latter and not the former – after all, can it be otherwise in Washington? Let’s hope it can, because if you can’t find enough people in Congress that believe it’s possible to support cleantech and good governance at the same time, it means the American people have much greater problems than the $535 million they lost on Solyndra.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.