POLITICS:

Leader of GOP Solyndra probe casts backward glance as he heads for exit

For the 12-term lawmaker who saw his national profile reach new heights after he was handed the gavel of the Energy and Commerce Committee's investigations subpanel two years ago, life after Congress appears set to be more about commerce than energy.

But Florida Republican Cliff Stearns also took time yesterday to discuss the energy issue for which he'll likely always be associated: his 18-month-long probe of the failed Solyndra LLC solar energy company.

Walking to a meeting in the Energy and Commerce offices in the Rayburn House Office Building, Stearns was carrying a book about Malta. Asked whether he was studying for his next job, Stearns said he's still a week or two away from announcing what he'll do when he leaves Congress. But he also acknowledged that his term as chairman of the U.S. delegation to the Transatlantic Legislators' Dialogue has offered some opportunities.

The 71-year-old Stearns said his next gig would involve free trade and the European Union.

Stearns' defeat in August to a little-known rookie candidate was one of the biggest upsets of the primary season. And it seemed to come as a surprise to Stearns, too. He left more than $1.5 million unspent in his campaign account (Greenwire, Aug. 15).

It was a loss that was all the more shocking because by the time the election rolled around, Stearns was seen as a rising star in the party in part because of his Solyndra probe.

From the time it began in February 2011 until August of that year, Stearns' probe of Solyndra -- which received $535 million in federal funding through a Department of Energy loan guarantee program -- was mostly a subject for energy wonks. But when the company filed for bankruptcy on Aug. 31, 2011, and the full extent of the federal loss on its investment became clear, Solyndra quickly became a household name.

As Republicans moved to make the company the poster child of the Obama administration's green energy efforts, Stearns played a leading role in the investigation. He oversaw a subcommittee probe that eventually involved 300,000 pages of documents, 14 interviews with administration and business officials, five hearings, three subpoenas, and near-daily headlines.

That investigation culminated in the House passage of Stearns' "No More Solyndras Act." It was a measure aimed at winding down the controversial loan program, but it was also a piece of legislation that was more for show. It never had a chance of going anywhere in the Democratically controlled Senate (E&E Daily, Sept. 14).

Still, Stearns said yesterday he believes his investigation helped Congress assert its role as steward of taxpayer dollars and reined in the Obama administration's green energy investments by putting a spotlight on the ties between the White House and those who were receiving funding. He also believes the investigation made it clear that controversial practices like subordinating federal funds to subsequent investments by private individuals will not be tolerated.

If there was a stone left to look under in the Solyndra probe, Stearns said it was that he couldn't get White House lawyers to certify that they had turned over every email the committee had requested in its investigation.

"We didn't get all the emails, in my humble opinion," Stearns said. "That's a regret, and I think it's not a good statement from the White House. I think the American people should realize they're not cooperating."

Stearns said he believes Solyndra was originally "an honest effort" by the Obama administration to help make solar panel prices competitive and give U.S. manufacturers a leg up.

"But after a while ... it became a cover-up, an obstruction of information" and a way to help wealthy investors who had ties to the Obama administration, he said.

And all those issues ended up becoming major story lines in the 2012 presidential election.

But Stearns said GOP nominee Mitt Romney didn't use Solyndra as well as he could have in the campaign, especially late in the election.

"I think initially it did help Romney," Stearns said.

And data compiled on ad spending during the campaign seem to indicate many outside groups believed the same thing.

According to numbers from the Solar Energy Industries Association, the leading solar trade group, Romney and Republican super PACs were quick to jump on the outrage provoked by Solyndra's implosion in late 2011 and early 2012. By April of this year, SEIA estimated that 81 percent of all the negative ads that had been run against Obama by Romney and GOP super PACs were focused in one way or another on clean energy and Solyndra (E&ENews PM, Nov. 28).

"I think the early exposure worked," Stearns said, but then the issue was lost in the rest of the 2012 noise.

"The president somehow was able to sidestep [Solyndra], and Romney did not make it an issue," Stearns said. "Just like Benghazi. Benghazi was a great issue for Romney, but he did not use it as well as I thought he could."

Stearns wondered yesterday if perhaps Solyndra had a short shelf life as a political issue, that it was stale by Election Day.

When you see so much coverage, "there's a point where people get tired of watching it," he acknowledged.

And if that's true, Stearns -- and his many subpoenas, hearings, news releases, cable news appearances -- ended up playing a major role in the overexposure of Solyndra.