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Emails released today give a fuller understanding of the depth of the interactions between the Obama administration and a top fundraiser whose foundation invested in Solyndra, including an October 2010 fundraising dinner where he shared a table with the president.
“OK, I’ll admit it. It was pretty intoxicating. Two hours at dinner. They sat me right next to Him,” fundraiser George Kaiser wrote about President Barack Obama to Ken Levit, the executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation. “Charming and incisive as always. Casual conversation; not speechifying.”
The email was revealed in a letter released by House Energy and Commerce Democrats in response to a document release earlier today by Republicans on the committee. House Republicans are investigating whether the White House used improper political pressure to facilitate several matters that the solar-panel company had before the Energy Department, including a $525 million loan guarantee awarded in September 2009 under the economic stimulus law.
The emails indicate that Kaiser and his associates interacted with top White House officials about Solyndra and policy issues relevant to the now-bankrupt company, which was raided by the FBI in early September.
But they also paint a nuanced picture of a man conflicted about using his political influence at the White House for Solyndra. For example, Kaiser said he resisted exhortations by Solyndra representatives to intervene more directly with the White House on the company’s applications for loan guarantees at the Energy Department.
“I never mentioned Solyndra directly” to the president at the fundraiser, Kaiser wrote in the email to Levit. But he did ask associates to brief him on “sound bytes” for the occasion. According to another Kaiser email, he talked during the fundraiser with Jim Messina, who then was deputy chief of staff to Obama and now runs the president’s re-election campaign, about a policy that might have directly benefited Solyndra.
“I said that I understood that the Buy American Act was being bypassed by ‘agencies of government’ (I didn’t say specifically DOD),” Kaiser told Messina, according to the email to Steve Mitchell, a member of Solyndra’s board. “He seemed quite aware of that problem and said they were preparing a directive to deal with it.”
Around the time of the fundraiser, Solyndra was seeking procurement commitments from the Defense Department, according to an Oct. 6 email from Mitchell.
Around 2 p.m. today, Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee released a small set of emails showing Kaiser and his associates discussing whether and how to leverage their political influence at the White House on two Solyndra matters before the Energy Department. The emails also document interactions between Kaiser and his associates and White House officials about Solyndra.
Facing financial difficulties, Solyndra began pushing for a second loan guarantee in early 2010. The emails document a Feb. 24, 2010, meeting between Levit and Vice President Joseph Biden’s office.
“They about had an orgasm in Biden’s office when we mentioned Solyndra,” Levit wrote in a Feb. 27, 2010, email.
“That’s awesome! Get us a DOE loan,” Mitchell responded.
In March 2010, then-Solyndra CEO Chris Gronet told Mitchell he had a “very positive” discussion with Jonathan Silver, a loan officer at the Department of Energy.
Mitchell then described Gronet’s call with Silver in an email to Kaiser and Levit.
“Apparently our application has been caught up with several other groups who were also wanting a second bite at the DOE loan guarantee apple,” Mitchell wrote in a March 5, 2010, email. Silver “did not say that we are the first one that will be considered but he all but did,” Levit wrote.
Kaiser responded in an email later that day. “Sounds good. ... BTW, a couple weeks ago when Ken and I were visiting with a group of Administration folks in DC who are in charge of the Stimulus process (White House, not DOE) and Solyndra came up, every one of them responded simultaneously about their thorough knowledge of the Solyndra story, suggesting it was one of their prime poster children,” he wrote.
About three hours after the Energy and Commerce Republicans released the emails, Democrats on the panel responded with a 10-page letter revealing more Kaiser communications.
Besides documenting Kaiser’s dinner with the president, they show a series of instances of Kaiser appearing uncomfortable about leveraging his political influence for Solyndra’s gain.
The emails also give greater context to discussions about whether to intervene more directly with the White House about Solyndra matters before the Energy Department in 2010.
Mitchell wrote to Kaiser on Oct. 6, 2010, that “the consensus is that a meeting with the new White House Chief of Staff is the best avenue to approach the administration for support on the DOE front and for assistance in securing any type of procurement commitments [from] the government or the military.”
“I question the assumption that WH is the path to pursue when both of your issues are with DOE. I doubt [White House officials] would intervene and, if they did, I am concerned that DOE/Chu would resent the intervention and your problem could get more difficult,” Kaiser wrote the same day in an email, referring to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
Mitchell responded the same day. “Understood,” he wrote. “The WH meeting is more about assistance in selling panels to the government than it is about getting the DOE loan revised. The WH has offered to help in the past and we do have a contact within the WH that we are working with. I think the company is hoping that we have some unnatural relationship that can open bigger doors — I’ve cautioned them that no one really has those relationships anymore.”
Levit agreed with Kaiser, saying, “It’s really quite hard to engineer an ask like that to the WH Chief of Staff from [the George Kaiser Family Foundation] or [Kaiser]. Our relationship is based on completely different issues. George may feel differently but I think it’s real tricky.”
Levit called the potential lobbying by Kaiser “totally inappropriate” in another email.
Jason Martin, a Kaiser operative, viewed the matter differently and pointed to the urgency of Solyndra’s financial situation.
“If you really want to get practical ... without DOE flexibility on loan terms, we will lose $400MM,” he said. “Are we expecting our conversations with the WH on our charitable initiatives to yield $400MM cash? If not we need to change the conversation with them right now.”
According to the letter from Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee ranking member Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Kaiser said in a Tuesday interview with Congressional investigators that the more direct effort to lobby the White House on Solyndra loan matters did not go forward.
Kaiser “categorically stated he did not contact the White House as requested,” the letter said.