US & Canada

White House 'rushed' loan to solar firm Solyndra

President Barack Obama visits Solyndra in May 2010
Image caption President Barack Obama cited Solyndra as an example of how the stimulus bill would create jobs

The White House could have rushed approval on a major government-backed loan to a failed solar panel firm for political reasons, say US Republicans.

Solyndra declared bankruptcy this month after laying off 1,100 workers, and was then raided by the FBI.

The company came to prominence when President Barack Obama visited it in May 2010 to promote green business.

The White House denied the loan had been rushed so that Vice-President Joe Biden could attend a groundbreak event.

On Thursday, the Treasury Department announced its own investigation through the inspector general's office.

A treasury department spokesman said the inspector general was reviewing the actions of the Federal Financing Bank, a treasury-supervised government corporation that provided the low-interest loan to Solyndra.

Several US solar firms have been shuttered in recent weeks, amid a surge of cheaper technology from Chinese manufacturers, combined with falling demand for the energy panels from Europe.

Decision 'urgency'

Internal emails of the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) were subpoenaed by the investigations panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee several months ago.

The OMB was tasked with the final due-diligence review on the $535m (£340m) federal loan after it was approved by the Department of Energy.

The emails, reported in the Washington Post, are said to show White House officials repeatedly pressing the OMB for a decision.

Image caption The FBI carried dozens of boxes of evidence from Solyndra's offices in Fremont, California

House Republicans cited the emails during a subcommittee hearing on Wednesday to question whether the loan programme's selection process was sound.

"Our investigation raises several questions about whether the administration did everything it could to protect taxpayer dollars," said committee chairman Fred Upton.

US taxpayers are liable for the loan now that the company has declared bankruptcy.

The Republican lawmakers say the emails suggest that staff members felt pressured to sign off on the loan.

In one email, an unnamed OMB staff member wrote: "We would prefer to have sufficient time to do our due-diligence reviews and have the approval set the date for the announcement rather than the other way around."

The Republicans said a ground-breaking event for the California-based firm, attended by Vice-President Biden via satellite link, was scheduled in September 2009 before the loan was even approved.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the emails had nothing to do with pressure to approve the loan, but instead with preparing Mr Biden's schedule.

"What the emails make clear is there was urgency to make a decision on a scheduling matter," Mr Carney told reporters. "People were simply looking for answers about whether or not people could move forward."

'No danger' of failure

The company was the first solar panel company to receive a loan from a federal programme to support innovative green technologies.

The government-guaranteed loan scheme was first created by the Bush administration in 2005, but was boosted after President Obama added stimulus money to the programme's funds.

As recently as two months ago, Solyndra's chief executive Brian Harrison told the committee that the company's finances were sound and there was no danger it would fail.

Solyndra cited the falling world price of solar panels as the reason for closing down the firm.

The FBI and the energy department's inspector general office raided the company and the homes of several of its executives on 8 September.

Solyndra said the FBI was seeking records on its loans.

The company laid off 1,100 employees at the end of August.

Two of the company's executives were invited to Wednesday's hearing but did not attend, saying they were focusing on the firm's sale. They are expected to appear next week instead.

Energy department loans director Jonathan Silver said Solyndra's failure should not reflect on the loan programme as a whole.

"I can't imagine a scenario in which we would willingly as a country walk away from what would be undoubtedly one of the largest - if not the largest - industries in the world over the next several decades," Mr Silver said.

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