Abound Solar chief declines to testify before House panel

Abound Solar Inc.’s CEO declined to testify before a U.S. House panel investigating the federal clean-energy program that backed the Abound as well as failed Solyndra LLC, the committee chairman said in a letter.

But Abound, which at one time hoped to hire 1,200 people in central Indiana by the end of 2013, denied that it wasn't cooperating with the panel.

Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote Abound’s lawyer on May 9, urging Abound CEO Officer Craig Witsoe to reconsider or agree to be interviewed by congressional staff.

Abound, which fired 180 people in Colorado in February after receiving a $400 million U.S. loan guarantee, is among several companies asked to testify at a May 16 hearing. The solar-energy projects have been criticized by Republicans, who say the funding by the Department of Energy represents broader failures of President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus program that financed the guarantees.

“The risks to taxpayer funds associated with these outlays are significant,” Issa wrote to Frank Swain, an attorney for Abound at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP. “Serious questions remain about DOE’s decision to grant Abound hundreds of millions of dollars in loan guarantees.”

Steve Abely, an Abound spokesman, said the Loveland, Colo.-based company was “cooperating fully” and hadn’t “refused any discussions.”

“Craig is prepared to meet with the committee and we are currently working out the timing,” Abely said in an email.

The company cited two reasons for not wanting to participate in the May hearing, according to Issa’s letter. It wanted to avoid jeopardizing ongoing negotiations with the Energy Department, and executives had a series of meetings with current and potential investors in the company in mid-May.

Republicans released in March a report by Issa’s staff they said showed mismanagement of the loan program extended beyond Solyndra, which filed for bankruptcy protection in September after it won a $535 million loan guarantee.

Abound shut production as solar-panel prices plummeted. The company said in February that it plans to refit its manufacturing lines to produce more efficient products.

The committee may use a “compulsory process” to elicit testimony from Witsoe, Becca Watkins, a spokeswoman for the committee, said in an email.

Issa’s letter noted that Fitch Ratings Ltd. had indicated investing in Abound would be “highly speculative.”

Abound won bipartisan support in Congress. Members of the Indiana delegation, including Sen. Richard Lugar and  Rep. Dan Burton, both Republicans, wrote Energy Secretary Steven Chu in October 2009 expressing “strong support” for Abound’s loan-guarantee application.

Abound planned to open a manufacturing plant in the massive, unfinished and abandoned Getrag transmission plant in Tipton, north of Indianapolis.

Potential losses from loan programs managed by the Energy Department may be less than projected by the Obama administration and Congress, according to an independent analysis released in February.

The long-term loss on 30 U.S.-backed clean-energy and auto loans might be about $2.7 billion, or $200 million less than the department’s estimate, Herbert Allison, a former Treasury Department official, found in his review, conducted in response to pressure from Republicans.

Allison rated projects such as Solyndra and Abound to be higher risk than others in the overall Energy Department loan portfolio.

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