Could Solyndra Scandal Sink Obama’s Presidency?

Jonathan Silver stepped down Thursday as head of the U.S. Energy Department’s scandalized loan program. It was he who approved the restructuring of debt owed the federal government by California solar panel manufacturer Solyndra.

The company received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Obama Energy Department in 2009 – as part of the administration’s zealous effort to promote renewable energy – before going belly-up in September.

The Obama administration denies that Silver’s sudden departure has anything to do with the unfolding Solyndra scandal, which has prompted a congressional investigation and a call for a special prosecutor.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu insisted that Silver, a venture capitalist who previously worked for the Clinton administration, simply moved on because the Department’s loan program depleted all of its $16 billion in funding last month.

Its very last two allocations, announced last week, included a $737 million federal loan guarantee to help finance construction of a solar-power generating facility in Nevada, home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and a $337 million loan guarantee for a solar-generation project in Arizona.

Chu defended the Energy Department’s latest loan guarantees, which could cost the taxpayers more than $1 billion if the recipients default on their debt as Solyndra has.

“If we want to be a player in the global clean energy race,” said Chu, “we must continue to invest in innovative technologies that enable commercial-scale deployment of clean, renewable power like solar.”

The energy secretary’s pronouncement was echoed by President Obama himself at a news conference Thursday at which he defended the Energy Department’s handling of the loan program.

“We knew from the start it was going to entail some risks,” said Obama. “There were going to be some companies that did not work out. Solyndra was one of them.”

Yet, neither the president nor Chu has stood behind Silver, who was roasted last month in an appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Silver had not yet joined the Energy Department when Solyndra was awarded its $535 million loan guarantee. But it was on his watch that the Energy Department actually considered awarding the solar company a second taxpayer-back loan of $469 million and ultimately restructured Solyndra’s debt payments on its original loan.

Silver’s resignation “does not solve the problem” the Obama Energy Department has gotten itself into, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton said Thursday, in a statement.

The committee’s investigation will continue, he vowed. The biggest question is whether the Obama administration manages to contain the Solyndra scandal, or it grows into a full-blown crisis that does lasting damage to the Obama presidency.

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