House Committee Grills DOE Loan Program Director Over Secret Emails

House Committee Grills DOE Loan Program Director Over Secret Emails
September 16, 2013

Paul Chesser

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes ... (read full bio)

A hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week investigated the Obama administration’s practice of concealing email communications, with former top officials getting grilled about their use of private Internet accounts to conduct government business.

Two of the most egregious offenders were subject to withering scrutiny, although it didn’t last long enough to get very deep. Lisa Jackson, the former EPA Administrator whose FOIA-evadable email address was under the alias “Richard Windsor” – named in part for her dog – was questioned about a message sent to Siemens vice president Alison Taylor in which she asked her to “use my home email rather than this one when you need to contact me directly….”

 

Jackson, of course, said it was perfectly normal to direct a corporation official that she regulates to communicate with her via methods for which the public has no access. Marlo Lewis of the Competitive Enterprise Institute provides an excellent summary of South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy’s questioning of Jackson at GlobalWarming.org.

And then there was Jonathan Silver (in photo), former director of the Department of Energy’s Loan Program Office. He came under fire – especially from Committee Republican Jim Jordan of Ohio – about his directives to keep messaging out of the public eye. The Congressman confronted Silver, who came to the loan program from the venture capital realm, with an email he sent in August 2011 from his personal account to a few staff members. The message was the subject of questioning Silver received by the same committee in July 2012.

“Don’t ever send an email on doe email with private addresses,” Silver wrote to a DOE colleague’s Gmail account. “That makes them subpoenable (sic) (i.e., subject to subpoena).”

Silver’s excuse was that he was “not trying to evade anything” and that the message was simply an admonition about handling personal vs. public communications. Jordan was having none of it, and asked if that was the case, why didn’t Silver respond to the message from his DOE email account. Silver said he could not explain because he could not remember where he was at the time when he sent the message.

“I’ll tell you what I think happened,” Jordan interrupted. “I think you were trying to conceal it.”

The Ohio Congressman then called attention to emails between Silver and John Woolard, CEO of Brightsource Energy, who was waiting for the final approval of a loan from DOE for a California solar project. One message extended an open invitation by Silver to Woolard to stay at his home “anytime,” and that the “guest bedroom is ready.” Jordan then refreshed Silver on a March 2011 piece of correspondence – which the Committee raised in that 2012 hearing also – in which Woolard and former Brightsource Chairman John Bryson sought Silver’s help in editing a letter to White House Chief of Staff William Daley, in which they would ask for “a commitment from the (White House) to quarterback loan closure between the Office of Management and Budget and DOE by March 18.”

“I think you were trying to help your friends,” Jordan said to Silver in last week’s hearing. The letter he referenced was never sent, but Brightsource did receive a $1.6 billion loan.

Jordan then unleashed a barrage of accusations at Silver: that he sought to conceal official government business on private email accounts; that he was so focused on helping friends get money that he was willing to help them appeal to the White House for the loan to be expedited; that 22 of 26 companies that got loan approvals had credit ratings of double-B-minus; and six companies have gone bankrupt.

“The taxpayer got the shaft all the way around in this program,” Jordan said.

The congressman then showed an email that committee staff from the law firm that also happens to represent Silver, requesting that questions not be directed to him. Silver claimed to know nothing about the request.

Silver entered his DOE role with great excitement from the venture capital community. Prior to taking the Loan Programs Office leadership role, he was co-founder and managing director of Core Capital Partners, “a successful early-stage investor in alternative energy technology, advanced manufacturing, telecommunications and software.” Before that he held senior positions with several other investment and finance firms. A number of others from the VC realm jumped to the Obama administration with him.

The Energy Department considers Silver’s tenure a “large” success.

“Under Mr. Silver’s leadership,” DOE’s Web site says, “the Loan Programs Office has grown to become the largest project finance effort in the United States. Since Mr. Silver took office, the agency has committed over $40 billion in 42 clean energy projects with total project costs of over $63 billion. Cumulatively, these projects create or save over 66,288 jobs across 38 states and avoid over 38 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to taking over 4.5 million vehicles off the road or about as many vehicles as in the state of Michigan. The program’s 23 generation projects produce over 32 million megawatt hours, enough to power nearly 3 million homes.”

Of course those are made-up numbers – not actual measurements. DOE also boasted how the Loan Programs Office, under Silver, underwrote the world’s largest wind farm; two of the of the world’s largest solar thermal power plants; the nation’s first nuclear power plant in three decades; several large geothermal projects; one of the country’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants; and three “successful” electric vehicle launches.

Note the boasting emphasizes “large,” which doesn’t mean “successful.” There is no such thing as “too big to fail” in any business, much less clean-tech – Solyndra, A123 Systems, and Ener1 batteries being just a few examples. The three electric vehicle “launches” were not initiated because of DOE either – Tesla, Nissan (Leaf) and Ford (various EVs) were already well underway before the stimulus came along, and the jury is still out on whether their electric car ventures will succeed or not. As for the nuclear plant, its future is in serious doubt as well.

Rep. Jordan assailed Silver’s record last week, as he cited several bankrupt recipients of DOE support. Silver’s response was that the losses represented only three percent of the portfolio. Jordan correctly noted the amount was “millions and millions of dollars.”

“Not every investment will be successful, but the vast majority have been,” Silver testified in perfect bureaucratese, the kind you would expect from a former venture capitalist.

Jordan responded with incredulity noting the 22 that had a double-B-minus credit rating, when no one in the private sector would have given them a loan.

“You guys go ahead and (loan the money), and six of them go bankrupt, and that’s a success?” Jordan retorted.

In responses to questions from Florida Republican Rep. John Mica, Silver acknowledged having private communications with two investors – John Doerr of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, and Ira Ehrenpreis of Technology Partners – while projects they were invested in were under consideration for DOE loans. Doerr’s investment, Fisker, is near failure and Ehrenpreis had stakes in Tesla Motors and Abound Solar, the latter which went bankrupt last year.

As Chairman Issa explained during last week’s hearing, investors in the failed companies who may seek redress in the courts may have been wronged if those private communications – which are legally the property of the public – have been deleted. It’s just another example of the despicability of crony capitalism.

Paul Chesser

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes ... (read full bio)