CEO at center of loan guarantee spat launches charm offensive

A week after House Republicans subpoenaed the Office of Management and Budget for documents relating to a controversial 2009 loan guarantee, the California-based solar energy company at the center of that investigation sought to distance itself from the White House office.

"Solyndra has never had any interaction with the OMB directly," said company President and CEO Brian Harrison yesterday afternoon.

Harrison is in Washington, D.C., this week on what is clearly a public relations offensive, meeting with national press and members of Congress to try to detach his company from the politically charged battle playing out between Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the White House and the Department of Energy over the loan guarantee program.

"What we want to do is separate Solyndra's business situation today from that investigation and not paint Solyndra with the same brush," Harrison said.

It is a tricky tightrope to walk four months after Republicans first targeted the company's loan in their probe. Harrison repeatedly declined to discuss the merits of the investigation, choosing instead to focus on Solyndra's current financial outlook, which he said is as bright as it has ever been.


"I'm not a political guy, we're just trying to run a business," he said. "I understand the authority that the Congress has to do that and they're doing their job and they should."

Harrison's PR effort seems to be paying off. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce's investigative subpanel, released a statement yesterday afternoon saying Solyndra was not the target of his efforts.

"I have met with Mr. Harrison ... and I wish his company well," Stearns said. "We have no desire to make it more difficult on an American company that is trying to create jobs in a tough economy. The current investigation is on OMB and its review of the loan guarantee, not on Solyndra, and our focus is on ensuring that taxpayer money is protected."

Stearns has charged that OMB is obstructing his investigation into the $535 million loan guarantee the office reviewed before DOE approved it. But if that is the case, Harrison said he wouldn't know about it.

"The relationship and the interaction between the OMB and the Department of Energy has been an area where I don't have any insight," he said. "Our relationship has been exclusively with the DOE."

Of course the company had at least one high-profile interaction directly with the White House after DOE finalized the loan, which funded the creation of a state-of-the-art plant to build, test and package its unique cylindrical solar generation system. The project was praised by President Obama during a visit in May 2010 as way to spur job creation from clean energy products.

But a month after Obama's tour, Solyndra ran into financing troubles that caused the company to cancel a planned public stock offering and trim its workforce.

Stearns and his fellow Republicans have expressed concern that DOE's loan guarantee for Solyndra was made with political motives in mind and that the fiscal outlook of the company did not warrant such an investment.

"I am concerned that the DOE is providing loans and loan guarantees to firms that aren't capable of competing in the global market, even with government subsidies," Stearns said in a statement announcing the investigation into Solyndra earlier this year.

But to hear Harrison describe it, Solyndra's dark days are behind it, now that it has its new plant up and running.

At 1,166 employees today, the company is larger than it has ever been and can boast a net increase of 310 new workers since the loan was approved. And after taking in $140 million in revenue last year, the company has already had its two best quarters ever in the first half of 2011. The company expects to double its total 2010 shipments by the end of this year, Harrison said.

"Good companies adapt to the marketplace and that's what we've done," he said.

Harrison acknowledged that the obstacles have been tough. He sought to provide some perspective on the company's $535 million loan guarantee by pointing out that the Chinese government has provided four of Solyndra's Chinese competitors a total of more than $21 billion in loans.

That is not to say Harrison is complaining.

"If we hadn't of gotten the loan guarantee ... I think that our forward-looking prospects would be dim," he said.

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