Secretary of Energy Steven Chu on Thursday offered a spirited defense of Solyndra's $535 million loan guarantee, even as he told members of a House oversight subcommittee that, in retrospect, lending the Fremont-based solar panel manufacturer more than half a billion dollars was a bad idea.
“Certainly knowing what I know now, we’d say no,” Chu said during a hearing in the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
But Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who left his position as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to join the Obama adminstration, also refused to apologize for losing taxpayer money on the company, which declared bankruptcy in September.
Chu said that economic factors, including the worldwide collapse of the price of silicon, could not have been forseen when Solyndra's loan guarantee was approved in September 2009.
"You don’t make decisions fast-forwarding two years in the future and then go back," he said.
Throughout the three-hour hearing, Chu dismissed as unfounded allegations advanced by House Republicans that the Department of Energy placed a risky bet on Solyndra because its largest investor was George Kaiser, a major fundraiser for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.
During his questioning of Chu, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) noted that Kaiser has visited the White House at least 16 times since Obama took office.
Emails released by the committee last week appeared to show that both Chu and Kaiser had remained personally involved in the Solyndra case.
In one email, dated March 5, 2010, Steve Mitchell, the manager of Kaiser’s investment firm, Argonaut Private Equity, wrote to his boss saying, “[I]t appears things are headed in the right direction and Chu is apparently staying involved in Solyndra’s application and continues to talk up the company as a success story.”
Seven months later, while Solyndra was seeking a second DOE loan guarantee, Kaiser wrote to Mitchell warning him not to go over Chu’s head to talk to White House energy czar Carol Browner or White House Chief of Staff Peter Rouse.
“I am concerned that DOE/Chu would resent the intervention and your problem could get more difficult,” Kaiser wrote.
But in his testimony on Capitol Hill Thursday, the energy secretary said he had never spoken with Kaiser.
"No Obama campaign donor ever did [contact me]," Chu said, adding that he was "not aware of any" contact between Kaiser and or any member of the Energy Department staff.
Chu was the highest-ranking official yet to testify before as part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigation, which has been lead by the committee chairman, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan).
"Secretary Chu’s testimony is an important piece of the overall Solyndra puzzle," Upton said in his opening statement. "We will work methodically, following the facts, to get to the bottom of why taxpayers are now on the hook for a half billion dollars."
But even before the hearing began, some of the wind had been taken out of Upton's sails thanks to a story published in Thursday's Washington Post.
The Post reported that Upton had pressured the Energy Department to approve funding assistance for United Solar Ovonics, a Michigan solar company that announced last week it was halting operations and laying off 500 employees and putting another 400 on furlough.
The Post reported that in 2009 Upton had also signed letters asking the Energy Department to provide financial assistance to automakers, a wind turbine maker, a biofuels refinery, a smart-grid project, a battery company and a water wave energy firm.
During Thursday's hearing, Democratic lawmakers used the story to take swipes at Upton and his GOP colleagues. Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, smiled when he noted that he too had signed a letter to the Energy Department on behalf of United Solar Ovonics.
Other liberal lawmakers, like Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), came out swinging against the Republican-lead investigation.
Noting the fact that the Occupy Wall Street movement had recently captured the nation's attention, Markey accused his GOP colleagues of launching a “preoccupy movement” on Solyndra to hide "the tens of billions given to the oil, coal and nuclear industries, the Republican favorites."