Stearns, architect of House Solyndra probe, looks back with few regrets

December 17, 2013 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

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Last year, Cliff Stearns left behind a 24-year career in Congress just as he was gaining notoriety for his expansive investigation into the bankruptcy of Solyndra.

After years of comfortable margins, the Florida House Republican lost a four-way primary to political newcomer (and now congressman) Ted Yoho, a veterinarian who ran a single campaign ad. Stearns lost by only 800 votes, leaving more than $1.5 million unspent in his campaign account.

But today, Stearns says it may have been for the best.

“I don’t really feel any bitterness. In some ways, there’s a lot of positive,” he said in a recent interview. “There is a time where you should retire. If you don’t, you’re missing opportunities in the private sector and missing opportunities with your family.”

The 72-year-old former lawmaker spent most of his political career working behind the scenes, locally known but nationally anonymous. That changed when he took over as head of the investigations subcommittee for the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2011. Among his high-profile investigations was a look into how Planned Parenthood funded abortions, earning conservative kudos and liberal disdain.

But Solyndra became his main passion. Over 18 months, his subpanel collected more than 300,000 pages of documents, held five hearings, issued three subpoenas and wrote a 154-page report detailing how the failed solar energy company got a $535 million loan guarantee.

The loss was a small part of the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program — and many experts have argued that such losses were built into the program when Congress funded it.

But Solyndra became a symbol of government waste and ineptitude, with documents revealing that lower-level administration staffers raised red flags before the Energy Department decided to restructure the loan. In the end, Solyndra spent $527 million of taxpayer funds before declaring bankruptcy.

The controversy was devastating for DOE’s loan guarantee program, which also suffered from the bankruptcies of other companies in its portfolio such as Fisker, the electric automaker. But DOE announced last week that it would revive the program, with $3 billion of loan support for renewable energy projects next year (Greenwire, Dec. 10).

Stearns called Solyndra “the case history” of what he characterizes as the Obama administration’s failure in its alternative energy investments.

“The questions would be: Was Solyndra helpful? Yes. Was Solyndra a case study of what can happen? Yes. Were there other examples? Yes. Will there be other examples? Yes,” he said.

He laments not getting the White House to certify that it had turned over all pertinent emails — and House leadership’s decision not to greenlight his recommendation that the chamber hold the White House in contempt.

But Stearns has also moved on, embracing his first job in the private sector in more than two decades. He chalks up his election loss to redistricting, which forced him to run in a district that did not include his hometown of Ocala.

Once knee deep in energy policy, Stearns said he no longer keeps tabs on DOE. He now deals in international trade as a senior counselor at communications firm APCO Worldwide. His “big win” in the last year was helping APCO get a contract to represent Florida in trade issues with China.

He is free from the jam-packed legislative schedule and the constant task of fundraising. He can “shoot the breeze” with other former legislators, including ex-Sen. Don Riegle (Mich.), a Republican-turned-Democrat whose office is next door. His views are “less political” and more focused on consensus.

Stearns also gives clients advice on how to face committees like the ones he once chaired. His top tips: Be straightforward, prepared, clear and concise. Lawmakers may be hopping from one hearing to the next, with little time to tease out the main points.

But he said he misses his staff and the accomplishment of passing a bill or hammering out a negotiation. He pointed to his work with former Rep. Ed Towns (D-N.Y.) to shorten the time for testing drugs that treat life-threatening illnesses. President Obama signed legislation last year that included language from their bill.

“That’s the type of thing that you really sort of feel grateful you get done,” Stearns said. “It’s the one thing I look at that I really can’t do today.”

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