A relatively unknown private company filing for bankruptcy is not usually a major national news story. When the solar energy firm Solyndra collapsed earlier this fall, however, the media took notice. The company had received a $535 million loan guarantee – potentially wasting millions of taxpayer dollars – and the public wanted to know whether the government had been irresponsible. iWatch News conducted an investigation detailing the facts.
This was undoubtedly a great investigative piece and involved a good deal of skilled journalism. Using this article as a guide, however, it’s possible to see how any of us – or you – could do a similar investigation.
The first point of evidence in the story is that in 2009 Solyndra received “a $535 million federal commitment” in the form of an “Obama administration energy loan guarantee.” The article later specifies that “The company had received at least $475 million and created just 585 jobs.” A search on Recovery.gov – the official government website for tracking Recovery Act spending – for “Solyndra” returns several Recipient Reports from 2009 and 2010. In the most recent report the project’s status is “less than 50% completed,” and the number of jobs reported is 585. The Department of Energy also makes its loan information available on its website.
The article suggests that there could be a conflict of interest in the Obama Administration awarding the loan to Solyndra, as “One of Solyndra’s major investors was George Kaiser, an Oklahoma billionaire who raised between $50,000 and $100,000 for Obama during the 2008 election.” A search using the Center for Responsive Politics’ list of bundlers for President Obama shows that George Kaiser raised a minimum of $50,000 and a maximum of $100,000.
The article also cites a 2010 Government Accountability Office report assessing the Energy Department’s loan program. The full report is available from GAO’s website by navigating to “Reports and Testimonies” and browsing alphabetically by agency. After selecting “Department of Energy,” you can narrow the search to a custom date range to help find the correct document.
Lastly the article mentions that Solyndra President and CEO Brian Harrison “came to Washington to meet with members of Congress and journalists to tout the company’s successes” in September 2011. It is unfortunately impossible to look up who he met with on the Hill, as Members of Congress are not required to publicly disclose their calendars. The Sunlight Foundation has been pushing for this transparency measure for years, but has not succeeded yet. We do know he was there, however, because the House Energy and Commerce Committee lists two hearings about Solyndra held in September where Harrison was a witness. If you wanted to check whether Harrison also visited the White House on his trip you could check the White House Visitor Logs. Harrison, however, does not appear in them.
It’s also been reported that proper reporting procedures for the loan guarantee granted to Solyndra were not followed.
“The News Without Transparency” shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we’ve redacted in the piece above. If you have an article you’d like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.