Issa bows out with Solyndra key to his legacy

By Niina Heikkinen | 12/20/2018 06:56 AM EST

California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, whose legacy includes fighting Obama administration green initiatives, is leaving Congress after nine terms.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) during his time as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) during his time as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, whose legacy includes fighting Obama administration green initiatives, is leaving Congress after nine terms.

Issa moderated his views on the environment toward the end of his time on Capitol Hill after almost getting unseated in 2016. He joining the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. Still, he leaves Washington, D.C., with a 4 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters.

Replacing Issa is Mike Levin, the Democrat who won the coastal California district between San Diego and Los Angeles, an environmental attorney backing the progressive "Green New Deal."


Of his nearly two decades in office, critics say Issa’s most memorable legacy on the environment can be boiled down to one word — Solyndra.

The name of the now-defunct solar startup became infamous during the President Obama years when House Republicans launched investigations into it in 2011 after the company declared bankruptcy.

The news sparked concern in Congress because just a couple of years beforehand, Solyndra Inc. had received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy through a program funded by the White House’s broader 2009 economic stimulus package.

As chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at the time, Issa led the probe into the agency’s vetting of the company, seeking evidence of political influence.

Issa and his GOP colleagues also zeroed in on the loan program office’s head for his use of private email to discuss official business.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee held its own concurrent investigation into the DOE investment, along with the department’s inspector general and the FBI.

"Congressman Issa raised the profile of the Oversight Committee, and he consistently asked the penetrating questions that made him a national figure during his time as the committee’s chairman," said Oversight member Gary Palmer (R-Ala.).

But the monthslong investigation exasperated Democrats and environmentalists, who accused Issa of trying to manufacture a broader political scandal out of a failed government investment.

R.L. Miller, political director of Climate Hawks Vote Political Action, said she would remember Issa as an "ineffective watchdog," pointing to his investigation into Solyndra.

"He tried to make political hay over the most minute things. Months and months and months of beating the drum of Solyndra as ‘crony capitalism.’ It turned out that the programs that he was criticizing were extraordinarily successful programs that were designed to have some failure," said Miller.

Political theater?

In response to emailed questions, Issa said there was good reason for all the attention to DOE’s loan program broadly and Solyndra specifically.

"[I]t was a bad loan made for a company bankrolled by a top Obama donor. In terms of the length of time we looked into Solyndra, the DOE IG and the FBI took years to complete their investigations, while we did this work in under a year," he wrote.

"It was a complex issue and our investigation was frustrated at every turn by obstruction from the Obama administration’s political actors at the DOE," he added.

Issa noted the investigation uncovered that numerous officials at DOE, including the chief of staff for then-Secretary Steven Chu, Brandon Hurlbut, and the head of the loan program, Jonathan Silver, were using private email accounts as a means of circumventing oversight and to hide details of the deals from public scrutiny.

In a recent interview with E&E News, Hurlbut pushed back on the idea that either he or Silver was attempting to hide anything "nefarious."

He conceded that Silver had used a private email account to complain about the press or certain aspects of the program and that he had been copied on some of those emails.

"There was an eight-hour deposition when we turned over all the emails. It was clear there was nothing there," Hurlbut said.

Hurlbut recalled the reams of documents the agency handed over to House Republicans. He estimated the Obama DOE sent over at least a million pages of documents to the two committees.

"What was really frustrating was there were a lot of big problems we wanted to work on with Congress, [but] we had this political theater where we had to have a whole team on document production," he said.

Solyndra’s promise

Solyndra was the first firm to receive a loan from the DOE program under the Obama administration, though work on the approval process began under President George W. Bush.

"We were anxious to get that money out, the economy was in a free fall, we were very nervous with this huge clean energy program that we were going to lose ground to China and others, we were very nervous we were going to cede that market to other countries," Hurlbut said.

Along with the pressure to start funding projects, it wasn’t clear at the time which technologies would emerge successfully, which is why DOE offered financing to a number of different types of ventures. These companies wouldn’t have been able to get that type of financing from the private sector back in 2009, said Hurlbut.

In Solyndra’s case, the company had manufactured a type of thin film solar cell that had appeared to be a promising alternative to more conventional panels.

"That’s what we tried to explain, and they turned this as a political weapon because they wanted to be able to get at Obama’s economic credentials," he said.

Chu also defended the program’s overall success, maintaining that only 1 percent of the companies DOE funded went bankrupt (Climatewire, Feb. 4, 2013).

"That 1 percent has gotten more attention than the 99 percent that have not," the former secretary said in 2013.

Issa’s investigation became focused on whether DOE officials had used the loan program to help Democratic donors and became what Hurlbut described as a "fake scandal."

He noted that Chu was an apolitical secretary to the point that his staff asked him whether he had even voted in the election prior to heading DOE. He had.

"One of the things we were just flabbergasted over was the notion that the Nobel Prize-winning physicist was doing something underhanded," Hurlbut said.

He and other supporters of the program credit DOE’s investments with helping to launch the proliferation of increasingly affordable renewable energy.

Years after Issa launched his investigation, the DOE inspector general released a report on the Solyndra investment in 2015, finding the solar company misled the agency on critical points.

The IG report called the statements of certain Solyndra officials "at best, reckless and irresponsible or, at worst, an orchestrated effort to knowingly and intentionally deceive and mislead the Department."

The government watchdog’s probe also cited the agency for missing opportunities to detect portions of unreliable data from Solyndra.

Today, Issa counts DOE’s loan guarantee program as a "colossal failure." "To give credit to declining prices in solar and wind to the program would be a complete misreading of history," he said.

Issa instead credited affordable renewables to increased market competition and more widely available materials for renewable energy generation.

‘Favorite teacher’

Issa first came to Congress in 2001 after making his fortune founding Directed Electronics Inc., a California-based manufacturer of vehicle anti-theft devices.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, he has the highest net worth of any member of the House, estimated at over $330 million in 2015.

Issa served as chairman of the House Oversight panel until early January 2015. He is also a member of the House Judiciary Committee and has served as chairman of the Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet.

His departure from the House may not be his exit from politics, however. In September, the president tapped Issa to lead the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. The nomination has yet to advance in committee.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, who also serves on Oversight, described Issa as a "favorite teacher" who took time to educate new and less-experienced members "with humor and thoughtfulness."

DesJarlais, a Tennessee Republican, recalled a personal story with Issa that he described as the best example of the Californian’s character.

"The morning after I was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, I had to fly back to Tennessee for seven weeks of treatment. Darrell Issa was chairing a hearing, and I went to tell him I would be absent for a while. Upon receiving the news, he stopped the hearing, brought my colleagues on the committee back to the boardroom and said a prayer for me with tears in his eyes," he said.

Mike McKenna, president of MWR Strategies, noted that Issa’s leadership pushed the Oversight Committee to focus a significant amount of energy on environmental issues.

"He understood that some important chunk of the regulatory state was tied up in those issues and apportioned his efforts accordingly. His successors really haven’t," McKenna wrote in an email.

DOE’s loan guarantee program was not the only arm of government to face Issa’s scrutiny during his time as Oversight chairman.

Issa also took a harsh view of the Obama administration’s green jobs program. In 2011, he called for the Department of Labor to defund the effort after the agency’s inspector general released a report finding that only 15 percent of current participants had jobs.

In a Jan. 20, 2012, letter to then-Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Issa said the department was giving people skills that had a "negligible amount of demand" from employers.

"In fact, it seems reasonable to conclude that many individuals who have partaken in green jobs training are worse off than they would have been had they spent that time acquiring worthwhile skills or searching for real and sustainable employment that is valued in the marketplace," Issa wrote. As with Solyndra, he accused DOL of playing political favorites.

Issa’s interest in politicians’ emails remained a recurring theme on Oversight. He spent months digging into former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s use of a secondary email account under the alias "Richard Windsor." Republicans criticized the administrator for attempting to avoid public scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act.

Late in his tenure, Issa celebrated when Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act, S. 339, into law in 2016. The measure made it easier for the public to access information from the government, including requiring agencies to publish documents electronically that had been requested three or more times.

"From day one, my biggest priority in Congress has been to make government more open and responsive to the people it’s supposed to serve. I’m proud to finally see these bipartisan reforms, which I’ve been fighting to implement for years, become a reality," Issa said in a statement at the time.

Climate views

Issa’s critics say he was in the pocket of fossil fuel interests.

Over the course of his career, his top donors have included San Diego-based Sempra Energy, with a total of $60,350, and Chevron Corp., with $50,500.

In individual years, Koch Industries Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp., Occidental Petroleum Corp., Valero Energy Corp. and Devon Energy Corp. were among his top donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Greens have also slammed Issa for his skepticism about the causes of climate change.

"One of the difficulties in examining the issue of the climate change and greenhouse gases is that there is a wide range of scientific opinions on this issue and the science community does not agree to the extent of the problem or the critical threshold of when this problem is truly catastrophic," he said in 2009.

Issa joined the Climate Solutions Caucus in March 2017. In joining the group, he cited the need to find a middle ground between "unworkable new taxes or complete inaction."

Miller, who was already a vocal critic of the caucus, saw Issa’s joining as an effort to hold onto his congressional seat. "Him joining was for me the tipping point that the caucus was being used as political cover," she said.

Issa pushed back on the skeptic label, calling it a "totally unfair characterization of my perspective" and noted the caucus was intended to bring members together with different perspectives to discuss potential solutions.

"I do not disagree the climate is changing, but I certainly disagree with the notion that economically pernicious regulations or trillions in government subsidies are the right way to address the issue," he said.

Issa cited the DOE loan guarantee program as one such ill-conceived approach.

"[I]t gave a small group of bureaucrats billions of dollars with which to pretend to be venture capitalists. The results are that bad technologies were propped up at the expense of market forces sorting out the winners and losers," he said.

Smooth transition

Rep.-elect Levin, who recently won Issa’s seat in California’s 49th District, blasted the congressman on climate issues.

Levin marked the beginning of his campaign by handing Issa, who eventually decided not to run for re-election, a copy of the book "Climate Change for Beginners" during a town hall event in March 2017.

"There was a big reaction from the crowd. Issa started telling the press that I was his political opponent, then he proceeded to talk about how we needed more natural gas and nuclear," Levin said.

That was the second copy of the book he’d given to the congressman. Levin told E&E News he sent the first copy to Issa in December 2016 with a letter telling him to share it with the president. Initially, he planned to send a different book, "Global Warming for Dummies."

"My wife said that was sort of mean," Levin said.

Levin promised his constituents he would work to move nuclear waste off San Onofre, along the Pacific coastline. More broadly, he says he will aim to protect the state’s coastline and clean air.

The Democrat is a supporter of the "Green New Deal" and hopes to join Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) proposed select committee on climate change. Levin is also angling for spots on the House Transportation or Natural Resources committees.

He pointed to the recently published fourth National Climate Assessment, emphasizing the need to take aggressive action to reduce fossil fuel use.

"We have 12 years to make significant reductions in our emissions. We have to plant our stake in the ground now," he said.

Despite their political differences, Levin said Issa had been helpful as he prepares for the upcoming congressional term.

"Since the election, he has been extremely good to work with in terms of transition. He’s been very willing to put the good of the constituents ahead of any political differences," Levin said.