WASHINGTON -- The powerful chair of the House Oversight Committee has launched "unsubstantiated" investigations into the Department of Energy, the committee's ranking member charged on Monday.
In a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the Republican-led House of Representatives' chief investigator, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said Issa had launched 11 investigations into the department and its employees, many of which were "based on unsubstantiated allegations that proved inaccurate after further investigation."
"Although I fully support aggressive oversight to ensure that government programs work effectively and efficiently, I believe the Committee should refrain from making accusations without evidence to support them and should correct the record when claims turn out to be inaccurate," Cummings wrote. "Only in this way will we be able to uphold the integrity of the Committee and protect the reputations of officials who have dedicated their careers to serving this nation."
In the letter, Cummings laid out several examples of instances in which he said Issa has wrongfully accused Energy Department employees of engaging in illegal conduct, noting in particular Issa's investigation of the department's loan guarantee program. Issa had alleged department workers based their decisions on partisan politics.
"Although the Committee has identified no evidence that decisions were based on political favoritism or corruption, we have identified at least 484 letters sent by Democrats and Republicans, including you, in support of federal funds for clean energy projects," Cummings wrote.
An investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee has failed to turn up any evidence that a loan to now-bankrupt solar company Solyndra was approved out of political favoritism, and many have alleged Republicans are merely dragging out Solyndra-related investigations as a way of scoring political points in an election year.
Indeed, the Energy Department accused Issa again Monday of taking things out of context in order to make his case, pointing to a story in The New York Times that reported the department had ignored the opinions of its technical staff in handing out a loan to First Solar for a solar farm project in California.
In an email also obtained by The Huffington Post, Dong Kim, the chief engineer of Energy's technical department, wrote that someone in the department had repeatedly changed slides in a presentation to say that a certain kind of sun-tracking technology to be used at California's Antelope Valley Solar Ranch was "innovative."
"Be clear that this is not an innovation," Kim wrote. Issa was expected to highlight the email in a Tuesday hearing as evidence that Kim's directive was ignored.
But The Huffington Post also obtained a memo Kim wrote a year earlier which seems to indicate he thought the tracking technology, called "single axis" technology, was new. The memo also details two other innovations that would seem to qualify the project for the department's loan standards even if, as the later email suggests, Kim subsequently decided the tracking technology was not innovative.
Innovation is a standard the Energy Department strove for dating back to the Bush administration, though it did not necessarily require it under the 1705 loan program, which is named after the law that created it. Regardless, "single axis" technology was not cited when the Energy Department announced the $646 million loan guarantee.
The citing of an email that does not include other standards by which the project might have been judged prompted Energy Department spokesman Damien LaVera to echo Cummings' charges.
"For nearly a year, Congressional critics of the Department’s loan programs have demonstrated a consistent pattern of cherry-picking individual emails from the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents the Department has provided to Congress with the sole purpose of inventing false and misleading controversy," LaVera said in an email. "As these investigations have made clear, decisions made on loan applications were made on the merits after extensive review by the experts in the loan program."
Jeff Solsby, a spokesman for the Oversight Committee, responded to Cummings' letter by saying, "Ranking Member Cummings' claims are fantasies from Congress' chief obstructionist of oversight. His mischaracterizations of the committee's work and ludicrous suggestion that billions in stimulus loans to Solyndra, First Solar, and other companies don't deserve oversight is indicative of how desperate this Administration and its allies are to change the subject."
"On a day when the committee is holding a full committee hearing on foreclosures, something Rep. Cummings has described as his top priority, sending this freakish missive on energy loans speaks volumes about his own deficiencies as a congressional investigator," Solsby added.
In his letter, Cummings also took issue with Issa's indictment of Energy Sec. Steven Chu's advisory panel on hydraulic fracturing, which Issa charged with being partisan, anti-industry, and prejudiced against the use of the technology. Yet the Oversight Committee identified no evidence of partisan politics and the report produced by the panel was widely praised even within the industry.
Chu will appear before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday, where he is expected to face allegations from Issa 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,'" The New York Times reported.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, the amount of the Energy Department's loan guarantee was mislabeled.
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