Updated: 6:40 pm ET, Monday, March 19
The gloves are off: Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) on Monday afternoon sent a scathing public letter to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), blasting Issa for misusing his power as the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee in launching 11 investigations into Department of Energy, “many” of which “have been based on unsubstantiated allegations that proved inaccurate after further investigation.”
Many of Issa’s investigations into the Energy Department have pertained to the Department of Energy’s support for eco-friendly and clean energy initiatives, including a clean energy loan guarantee program which awarded a $535 million guarantee to solar manufacturer Solyndra, before the company went bankrupt in September 2011.
So far, neither the Oversight Committee nor the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which launched a separate investigation specifically into Solyndra, have uncovered any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the Energy Department for that or other clean energy projects.
“I believe the [Oversight] Committee should refrain from making accusations without evidence to support them and should correct the record when claims turn out to be inaccurate,” Cummings, a ranking member of the Oversight Committee, wrote to Issa in the letter, pointing out four instances throughout the course of 2011 when Issa had made broad public accusations against the Energy Department that turned out to be incorrect, yet didn’t correct the record to reflect that his original claims had been disproved.
One example Cummings cited: A letter Issa sent to the Energy Department in May 2011, accusing an employee of breaking the law by telling GM to withhold from Issa’s investigation documents about fuel economy standards. But the Energy Department responded that the documents had nothing to do with Issa’s investigation, and were instead related to a Bush-era initiative to improve efficiency when responding to FOIA requests.
“Rather than threatening Department employees based on little or no evidence, it appears that a telephone call could have resolved this question,” Cummings pointed out. “In my opinion, the employees targeted in your letter deserve an apology on behalf of the Committee.”
Further, as Cummings pointed out: “The Committee has identified at least 484 letters sent by both Republican and Democratic Members, including you, in support of federal funds for clean energy projects.”
Though not expressly stated, House staffers told TPM that Cummings’ letter was largely a response to Issa’s latest accusations of improper funding by the Energy Department.
On Monday morning, Issa told the New York Times and ABC News that the Department of Energy “manipulated analysis, ignored objections from career professionals and strategically modified loan evaluations in order to force project funding out the door” to award $1.6 billion worth of loans to Tempe, AZ-based First Solar, for two separate solar projects.
Specifically, Issa said that the committee had uncovered evidence that the Energy Department awarded the funding to First Solar despite the objections of the Energy Department loan program’s technical director, who said the projects weren’t innovative enough to comply with the loan award requirements.
“Be clear this is not an innovation,” wrote Dong K. Kim, of the “single-axis” motorized tracking technology that allows solar panels to follow the Sun, in an email obtained by ABC News. “The record will show we did not grade this as an innovation.”
However, in a memo obtained by TPM, Kim himself earlier voiced approval the projects, concluding that the technology was “rarely used commercially” with the kind of solar installations that First Solar was seeking to build, and thus made the innovation grade.
Sources close to the Energy Department told TPM that Issa had the later email, but chose not to mention it to reporters.
Both Cummings’ letter and Issa’s statements came on the eve of a House Oversight Committee hearing set for Tuesday designed to broadly investigate the Department of Energy’s use of federal stimulus funds to support clean energy projects. Issa, as Chairman of the committee, will preside over the hearing. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who has already testified 6 times regarding the Energy Department’s support for clean energy, is scheduled to testify once more.
Late update: Rep. Issa’s press secretary Becca Watkins lashed back at Cummings’ letter and the Energy Department’s claims that Kim approved the technological basis for the loans, pointing out in a phone interview with TPM that the memo in which Kim signaled his approval came in August 2010, almost a year before the June 2011 email in which Kim said the project wasn’t innovative enough to qualify.
“Neither the ranking member [Cummings], nor the Energy Department have the opportunity to rewrite history,” Watkins told TPM in a phone call. “The facts speak for themselves. It is incredibly deceptive for the Energy Department to distort timelines in such an obvious attempt to minimize legitimate Congressional oversight.”
Further, Watkins said that the House Oversight Committee had obtained emails from the Energy Department indicating the the original approval memo was “cobbled together” from a variety of sources and that there were “indications” the project was “rushed.”
“There are a number of Energy Department loans we’ve looked into where we thought they were bending the rules,” Watkins told TPM. “We’ve been trying to get Secretary Chu to testify for some time. We’ll be happy to have him tomorrow and we hope he’ll be forthright in his testimony.”