Solyndra's Execs Take The Fifth

Top executives of Solyndra, a bankrupt solar-energy company, have declined to testify in a congressional hearing Friday, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights. The company is under investigation for a half-billion dollar government loan guarantee it received.

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If lawmakers expected answers from Solyndra today, they did not get them. The failed solar power firm received more than half a billion dollars in government loan guarantees, and a visit from President Obama back in May of 2010. But last month, the company filed for bankruptcy and laid off its 1,100 employees. Later, the FBI raided its offices and its executives' homes. Well, this morning, Solyndra executives appeared before a House subcommittee.

NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI: The two executives took their seats looking fit for a funeral with their dark suits and sober expressions. They stared stiffly into the middle distance as a dozen cameras jockeyed for close-ups of their faces. Brian Harrison was Solyndra's chief executive; William Stover, its chief financial officer.

The subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns said he'd called the two to testify last week. Their attorneys postponed their appearance, pledging at the time to answer the committee's questions.

CLIFF STEARNS: Unfortunately, we won't get those answers today. Mr. Harrison and Mr. Stover's counsel informed the committee three days ago that they would decline to answer the committee's questions and would invoke their rights under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

NOGUCHI: And that, they did. Twenty-three times the executives exercised their right to remain silent, much to the chagrin of lawmakers.

Here, Texas Republican Joe Barton.

JOE BARTON: I want to ask Mr. Harrison if he thinks the American people, who've invested over half a billion dollars, deserve to know what happened to that money?

BRIAN HARRISON: On the advice of my counsel, I invoke the privilege afforded to me by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution and I respectfully decline to answer any questions.

BARTON: I want to ask the same question to Mr. Stover.

WILLIAM STOVER: On the advice of my counsel, I invoke the privilege afforded by the Fifth Amendment...

NOGUCHI: The questions kept coming. Republicans framed their questions to suggest the Obama administration pushed the Department of Energy too hard to invest in a new and risky business and that it did so to benefit one of its major fundraisers.

Each time, the executives restated their intention not to answer questions. After several rounds of this, California Democrat Henry Waxman shot back.

HENRY WAXMAN: If they've asserted the Fifth Amendment there's nothing else we can do. And to badger them with questions that are simply soundbites for the press does not strike me as a fair way or a balanced way for the committee to conduct its business.

NOGUCHI: Solyndra is an embarrassment for the administration. And Waxman and other Democrats admitted that they, too, felt misled by Solyndra executives who, just weeks before the company's collapse, told them that the company's future was sound. But the Democrats decried Republican attempts to turn Solyndra's failure into a referendum on solar energy and so-called green jobs.

Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey.

ED MARKEY: The Republican majority is recklessly exploiting this one case to advance a political agenda that is very clearly aimed at killing the solar, wind, and renewable industries.

NOGUCHI: Markey was referring to a vote taken in the wee hours Friday morning. The Republican-led House passed a measure that cut two Energy Department programs, including the loan guarantee program that funded Solyndra. Democrats called such moves short-sighted.

Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette noted the U.S. is already playing catch up with China in what she sees as an important industry in the future.

DIANA DEGETTE: We will have lost an opportunity to lead in what is arguably the largest and most pervasive technology sector in the world.

NOGUCHI: DeGette requested the subcommittee call additional hearings on whether the government's policies offer adequate support to help the alternative energy industry grow.

After confirming, once again, that the executives would not answer any questions, Republican Chairman Cliff Stearns dismissed them and said he would take the Democrats' request into consideration.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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