Solyndra's lobbying not disclosed by DOE under stimulus rules

The Energy Department has not disclosed any lobbying by the embattled solar energy company Solyndra, despite its K Street firm indicating it had contacted the department regarding the stimulus package.

Under a policy first issued by the White House in 2009, federal agencies were required to disclose lobbying for stimulus funds. McBee Strategic Consulting, a lobby firm then under contract with Solyndra, said it had contacted the Energy Department in the first and third quarters of 2009 regarding the Recovery Act, according to records filed under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA).

Yet a review by The Hill of the more than 40 lobbyist contact disclosure forms regarding the stimulus posted online by the Energy Department reveals no contact between the department and Solyndra's lobbyists.

The discrepancy has been a common problem with the stimulus lobbying disclosure policy. Lobbyists have disclosed under the LDA that they have lobbied on the stimulus thousands of times since 2009, but federal agencies have released records that only detail hundreds of contacts between them and K Street.

Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, said the LDA and the White House's stimulus lobbying disclosure policy are imperfect and both have never completely captured how lobbyists are trying to influence Washington.

"The two were never designed to match up perfectly but it shows the weaknesses of both the Lobbying Disclosure Act as well as the policy put in place to disclose the lobbying regarding the stimulus. What's needed is a comprehensive approach to lobbying disclosure," Schuman said. "At best, you can only get glimpses of how people are trying to influence government."

A spokesman for Energy said staff at its loan program office could not find any communications from Solyndra's lobbyists.

“A review of our emails did not identify any contacts between our loan program staff and lobbyists from Solyndra or McBee Strategic Consulting,” said Damien LaVera, an Energy spokesman.

Solyndra has been embroiled in controversy since they declared bankruptcy earlier this month.

The California-based solar company was awarded a $535 million loan guarantee from Energy under the stimulus package. The company's investors include a foundation affiliated with George Kaiser, a fundraiser for President Obama's 2008 campaign, and the White House was keeping close tabs on the loan guarantee, according to emails released by House Republican investigators.

Soon after it declared bankruptcy, the company’s headquarters was raided by the FBI. Appearing at a congressional hearing Friday, Solyndra executives repeatedly invoked their Fifth Amendment rights.

In 2009, McBee Strategic Consulting was the only lobby firm registered on behalf of Solyndra.

The firm reported that it contacted both chambers of Congress as well as Energy regarding “H.R.1 American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009, provisions related to DOE Loan Guarantee program. Energy policy legislation” in the first three months of 2009, according to lobbying disclosure records.

In addition, the firm reported that it contacted both chambers of Congress as well as Energy regarding “H.R. 1 the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (PL: 111-5), monitored implementation. Monitored provisions of pending energy and climate legislation relevant to solar technology” in 2009’s third quarter, according to lobbying disclosure records.

Also regarding the stimulus that quarter, the firm’s lobbyists, on behalf of Solyndra, “monitored implementation of provisions related to renewable energy taxes” and “provisions relevant to solar technology” where they listed Energy as a contacted government entity.

The firm did not respond to several messages from The Hill asking for comment.

Lobbyists’ communications regarding stimulus funds with agencies do not always trigger disclosure requirements under the White House’s guidelines.

If lobbyists were trying to set up a meeting or ask when an application is due, that would not have required disclosure. In addition, lobbying was restricted regarding applications for specific stimulus projects — lobbyists’ oral communications to government officials about projects are barred but lobbyists can communicate in writing about specific projects, which would be posted online by the lobbied agency.

Solyndra was working towards its loan guarantee, which was approved in September 2009.

Agency officials were often discouraged to communicate with lobbyists regarding the stimulus. Further, lobbyists often skirted the stimulus lobbying disclosure rules by having junior aides or client company executives — both not typically registered under the LDA — attend meetings with government officials instead.

Schuman said the Obama administration’s stimulus lobbying disclosure rules were much better than anything ever done in the past, but still do not work as planned.

“If you just call and are asking for logistical information, that would not have triggered the disclosure requirements under the stimulus lobbying rules. We don't know the nature of their communication,” Schuman said. “If they said give a loan to Solyndra or give any informational material with the intent to influence government policy, that should have been disclosed then.”

Energy’s loans program was heavily lobbied, according to stimulus lobbyist disclosure forms released by the department. Jonathan Silver, the loans program office’s executive director, has been lobbied at least nine times regarding the stimulus, according to the forms.

In some of those meetings with Silver, alongside other energy trade groups, was the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Solyndra is one of SEIA’s member companies.

Lobbyists for the solar energy trade group had at least eight contacts with Energy officials about stimulus issues, according to the forms.

A spokesman for the trade group said the meetings or contacts never involved Solyndra though.

"The purpose of these meetings was to discuss macro-level program process and deadlines and included representatives from a number of energy industries like the Nuclear Energy Institute, [the American Wind Energy Association], geothermal and others. My understanding is that Solyndra was not discussed," said a SEIA spokesman.