A congressional subcommittee investigating a $535 million loan guarantee to a politically-connected California solar panel maker sought answers Friday from the Office of Management and Budget—but the sole witness didn’t show up.
The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations has pressed for internal documents from OMB that could shed light on the loan guarantee for Solyndra Inc. The guarantee, the first issued by the Obama administration, was announced with fanfare in March 2009. Yet questions surfaced as the California firm laid off workers and cancelled a planned initial public offering after it had secured the government’s backing.
Solyndra’s prime financial backers include Obama bundler George Kaiser, an Oklahoma oil billionaire. iWatch News and ABC reported in May the Obama administration bypassed steps meant to protect taxpayers as it hurried to approve the energy loan guarantee.
Stearns says OMB has refused to turn over internal emails written as the government weighed whether to grant the financial support to a company then just four years old. Jeffrey Zients, OMB’s deputy director, was asked to testify at Friday’s hearing.
Zients wrote to the committee that his schedule precluded his appearance, and Democrats contended the hearing was little more than political theater.
OMB’s absence could signal increased tensions between the Obama administration and the Republican House, which is aggressively investigating the stimulus-funded loan guarantee to Solyndra.
Subcommittee Chair Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., said that if the budget office refuses to comply in the coming weeks, he might seek a subpoena to force disclosure.
The subcommittee is investigating whether the Energy Department and budget office diligently vetted the loan, and the internal documents could reveal whether the budget office had reservations. The Department of Energy said the loan guarantee will pay off, and Solyndra said politics played no role in its award and that its finances have strengthened.
Republicans on the subcommittee were frustrated by Zients’ absence.
“We’re a little puzzled why after two months, they’re still reluctant to give the information,” said Stearns. “At this point, we’re just saying, ‘What is the reluctance to give the documents to a committee that has the jurisdiction?’ …We have every right to ask for them. And what’s the delay? Why is there a delay?”
OMB suggested the delay was due to poor communication between the subcommittee and the budget office. In a letter to Stearns, OMB said it couldn’t turn Zients’ schedule around fast enough to accommodate Congress.
“I am delighted to appear before your subcommittee to discuss this matter,” Zients wrote Stearns. “We were, however, only provided with an unusually short notice of less than four days and unfortunately I had a scheduling conflict on Friday.”
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., called the hearing a “profound waste of time.”
“Rather than schedule the hearing for one of the dozen days Mr. Zients is available, the majority has called members here to question an empty chair,” she said.
Stearns said the budget office had plenty of time, and that he told OMB someone other than Zients could attend.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said the government has to be particularly vigilant amid tough economic times. “Our consumers want answers. We need answers to these questions,” said Blackburn. “The president, the administration shouldn’t be choosing winners and losers.”