Top Solyndra executives are scheduled to appear today before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. But that’s all they’ll be doing. As reported earlier this week, Solyndra CEO Brian Harrison and CFO Bill Stover will invoke their Fifth Amendment rights and decline to answer any questions from lawmakers with respect to the $535 million taxpayer-guaranteed loan the company received before going bankrupt.
Here are a few of the questions that Harrison and Stover won’t be answering tomorrow:
1) Why did your company feel it was necessary to build an entirely new production facility, in an area notorious for its abundance of unused commercial real estate? Once the decision was made with respect to the need for a new facility, why did Solyndra choose the location that it did? During the loan-approval process, did anyone at the Department of Energy ever question these decisions?
Subcommittee member Brian Bilbray (R., Calif.) called it “absurd” that no one appears to have raised any concern about the decision to build a brand-new production facility. As a native Californian, Bilbray knows all too well that the business environment in the state has engendered a surplus of abandoned warehouses, any of which could be rented or retrofitted to accommodate Solyndra’s operation. Start-up businesses are constantly failing, and others are “fleeing the state” in search of more favorable economic conditions, Bilbray says.
Which raises another point about the location of the facility. Electricity costs in California, at 22 cents per kilowatt-hour, are twice as high as those in midwestern states such as Ohio. On top of that, the state has some of the strictest state and local regulatory regimes in the country in regard to air quality, water quality, storm runoff, occupational safety, hazardous-waste generation, and so on. And yet Solyndra proposed to build on 30 acres of virgin farmland in Fremont, Calif. (in the Bay area), on a site that was classified by the EPA as a “non-attainment zone,” meaning that air quality did not meet certain federal standards and local authorities needed to implement a plan to reduce pollution. All told, they chose one of the most expensive tracts of land in the country on which to build. Given the involvement of federal funds, the public deserves an explanation for that decision.
2) Solyndra officials visited the White House 20 times between March 2009 and April 2011. What was the purpose of these visits, what was discussed, and who was in attendance? Can you describe the role of George Kaiser, a major Obama fundraiser and Solyndra investor, in arranging these White House meetings?
Kaiser, a billionaire investor from Oklahoma who has openly boasted about his ability to use his Beltway connections to get his hands on federal funding, insists he did not participate in any discussions in regard to the Solyndra loan agreement. This is highly suspect. Kaiser’s foundation, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, through one of its investments arms, Argonaut Ventures, was a primary investor in the company, at one point owning a 39 percent stake. Kaiser made multiple visits to the White House in the months before the loan guarantee was formally approved, and records show he was involved in arranging a number of meetings between Solyndra executives and top administration officials.
Representative Bilbray (R., Calif.) told me he would like to know to what extent Solyndra officials made a “hard sell” to the White House regarding the “environmental benefits” of the thin-film solar-panel technology they were producing, which from an economic standpoint happens to be one of the riskiest investments of its kind. Bilbray fears the administration’s “blind faith in all things solar” caused to it make poor investment decisions.