By Christopher Cadelago
SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
February 4, 2012
Rep. Brian Bilbray, who said he worried about political pressure on the Department of Energy in approving $535 million in loan guarantees to solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, himself requested U.S. aid for energy-efficient vehicle companies in San Diego.
Bilbray, R-San Diego, is a member of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee that probed the department’s loan program as part of its investigation into now-bankrupt Solyndra.
“You’ve just got to understand the federal government’s record on this is miserable when it comes to cost-effectiveness,” Bilbray said in a Sept. 30 interview on Fox Business Network. “And this is why we really should be suspect any time somebody tells you that these huge federal programs done fast, done quick, with large amounts of money are going to be cost-effective.”
Much criticism of the administration’s handling of Solyndra’s aid has to do with the subsequent failure of the company and with the timing of political appearances by President Barack Obama touting the company. Critics say there were signs of trouble that the government should have seen coming and may have colluded to hide.
There are no such allegations involving Bilbray. But two startups he sought to help with letters and legislation — V-Vehicle Company (now Next Autoworks) and Aptera Motors — had their own troubles.
Carlsbad-based Aptera announced Dec. 2 that it was liquidating after failing to secure private-sector matching funds for a $150 million Department of Energy loan that was conditionally committed.
In December, Next Autoworks said it would close its headquarters in San Diego, slash its workforce and consolidate into a technical center in Troy, Mich., after withdrawing its application for a $320 million loan following word that it wouldn’t be approved due to “political and credit-risk concerns.”
In separate letters to Energy Secretary Steven Chu in 2009 and 2010, Bilbray had asked for appropriate consideration and to “do what you can to expedite the review process.”
In an interview Friday, Bilbray said his advocacy for the companies was consistent with his record on algae and green-fuel technology and that he was asking for the department not to rule out innovation, which it had done.
“The fact is advocating for small, innovative companies that are being blocked by a regulatory barrier that’s arbitrary is a totally different issue of mine (than) basically advocating for the administration to break the law and put the taxpayer in the back seat and put some new investor in the front seat,” he said. “I pointed out that while you guys are breaking the rules and pumping a half a billion dollars of taxpayer money into this big guy who is building a Taj Mahal you got the little guys who are in old warehouses that are on a shoestring being told ‘No, we’re not going to let you play.’”
He said Aptera’s aid was delayed so that it had to change its engineering based on obstructionism instead of science.
“This is where you really got to try to balance the system between the big powerful corporations that have all of the connections to the little guy that is just trying to compete.”
Kathay Feng, executive director for California Common Cause, a nonprofit organization dedicated to open government, said it was hypocritical to criticize the administration for picking winners and losers when the congressman also sought government loan guarantees, albeit with a different outcome.
“We are in an election season where there are a lot of fierce words by one party’s politicians leveled at another party’s politicians and we see a lot of hypocritical statements made about unethical or bad behavior when everybody is engaged in playing the same game,” Feng said.
She noted $1,000 in contributions Bilbray received from an Aptera lobbyist, contributions Bilbray said he was unaware of.
Bilbray is not the only congressman who sought to intervene for energy companies and went on to criticize the Obama administration’s handling of Solyndra. House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., urged the Department of Energy to approve funding assistance for a Michigan solar company that announced in November it would halt operations.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, joined 16 members of the California delegation in promoting a battery manufacturer based in Sylmar. Issa also was supportive of Aptera’s loan application and wrote in a 2010 letter to Chu, “Awarding this opportunity to Aptera Motors will greatly assist a leading developer of electric vehicles in my district.”
As chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee he later launched a high-profile investigation into loan guarantees and Fremont-based Solyndra.
“There’s been this attitude that somehow the government can weigh in with loan guarantees and money and pick specific company winners and losers,” Issa said Sept. 19 on C-SPAN’S “Washington Journal.” “We see that as a backdoor, easy way to end up with corruption in government.”
He added that supporting specific companies posed a potential danger because it could stem from a politician’s political ideology or from the fact that they receive campaign contributions from company executives.
Asked about the inconsistencies, Issa told U-T San Diego that members of the legislative branch differed from the administration in that they don’t grant the money. Also, he said, he didn’t ask for the money for Aptera — just for an answer on the application.
Bilbray’s Energy committee said in a report that aides of the president pushed to have Solyndra’s loan fast-tracked in time for an announcement, a charge refuted by the White House and Energy Department. Jonathan Silver, the head of the department’s loan program office, later resigned.
Aptera was founded in 2005 by a pair of entrepreneurs from Mira Mesa and Carlsbad. Its aerodynamic, three-wheel models made from super-lightweight composites were to deliver the equivalent of more than 100 miles per gallon. The company’s original application was denied because the program only allowed for four-wheel passenger vehicles.
A law change written by Bilbray and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, altered the definition to broaden the program.
“The big guys (Tesla and Fisker) were basically getting checks written right and left while the little guys were being told, ‘Well sorry, you just don’t fit into our categories and we’re going to continue to cut you out,’” Bilbray said. “All I said was, ‘Let them apply.’”
Bilbray, who served on the California Air Resources Board and California Coastal Commission, faces re-election in a district that is drawing national interest because Republicans hold less than a 3-percent voter registration advantage there.