Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has lobbied the Department of Energy in the past for a kind of federal loan similar to those his committee is now investigating.
In a letter received by the department in January 2010, Issa asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu to grant a loan to Aptera Motors, a California-based electric car company. In November 2009, Donald R. Beall, who sits on the Aptera’s board of advisers and whose family’s foundation is one of the “angel investors” in the company, made a campaign donation to Issa of $250.
Issa’s office defended the chairman’s role in pushing the Energy Department for the approval of the local car manufacturer’s loan.
“There is nothing new or surprising about the existence of federal loan guarantee programs or members of Congress writing letters in support of home state businesses who apply for them,” said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa.
“The focus of questions and concerns are about actual bill provisions and their interpretation by the administration that resulted in decisions to bestow connected firms like Solyndra with special treatment.”
Issa’s investigation into the role that political ideology and campaign backing plays in the White House’s selection of eligible companies for subsidized government loans was spurred by the solar panel-maker Solyndra declaring bankruptcy late last month after receiving a $535 million government loan.
The Obama administration had touted the company as a success of its stimulus program and green-jobs agenda. But emails between the White House and Energy Department show administration officials pushing for quick consideration of the loans. One of Solyndra’s private investors is a major Obama campaign contributor, raising as much as $100,000 for the president’s 2008 victory.
White House and Energy Department officials deny any wrongdoing. But Issa said the situation smacks of “crony capitalism.”
“There’s been this attitude that somehow government can weigh in with loan guarantees and money and pick specific company winners and losers,” Issa said on C-SPAN earlier this week. “We see that as a back-door easy way to end up with corruption in government.
“This is another reason that crony capitalism — getting involved in government [and] using its power to pick winning companies in a capitalist system — is dangerous, because they’re going to pick winners that they ideologically, or in some cases, because they support their candidacy, want to see win.”
Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.), who sits on the Oversight panel, said that while he would never “presume to council the chairman on how to conduct his business,” Issa should take a close look at his own affairs before making accusations.
“People who live in glass houses should not throw stones,” Connolly said.
But Issa’s office said his ties to Aptera, which is still in business, and the Energy Department’s inaction on the loan for which it applied are evidence that political preference is at play.
“Despite promising technology, nearly three years later Aptera’s application is still awaiting a decision from the Department of Energy,” Hill said in a statement. “Apparently they didn’t have the political connections to the president’s campaign of companies who got to the front of the line like Solyndra.”
Aptera did not respond to a request for comment.
Issa isn’t the only Republican coming under fire for his simultaneous criticism of the administration’s handling of the Solyndra deal and personal support of energy loans for companies in their state with campaign donor ties.
In 2009, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrote the DOE seeking to expedite a loan request from a local Kentucky auto-manufacturing company in need of cash to move forward with an electric-car design, according to documents obtained by The Hill. To push the issue with McConnell, the auto company hired a lobbyist, who has made multiple campaign donations to the Kentucky senator, according to The New York Times.
There have also been questions about whether Issa’s committee needs to be investigating the federal loan program since another committee is already doing so.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a former chairman of the Oversight committee who now sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which began its own investigation of Solyndra’s bankruptcy earlier this month, questioned whether two simultaneous investigations were warranted.
“The investigation by the Energy and Commerce Committee is perfectly appropriate,” Waxman said. “I don’t know that every committee needs to investigate it.
“It doesn’t make sense to do the same investigation over and over again. But maybe he’ll be able to find something that we didn’t find.”
Issa’s office took the Democratic comments as a sign that the subject of the investigation was a worthy one.
“The minority throwing out yet another talking point about why they believe oversight of the Obama administration should not occur is just another sign of their discomfort about the facts of the situation,” Hill said.
Republicans have pounced on the issue and used it to argue that Democrats are guilty of cronyism and back-door politics.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called Monday on the Justice Department to appoint a special examiner to investigate the Solyndra bankruptcy.
This story was originally posted at 11:40 a.m. and has been updated.