Two senior executives from the troubled California solar company Solyndra Inc. appeared today before a congressional committee and, as expected, invoked the Fifth Amendment while declining to answer any questions.
Brian Harrison, the chief executive, and W.G. Stover Jr., the chief financial officer, said they were acting on the advice of counsel in choosing not to potentially incriminate themselves. Their lawyers, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe partner Walter Brown Jr. and Keker & Van Nest partner Jan Little, respectively, told the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations this week that they had advised their clients not to answer questions.
But the committee’s investigators decided to require the executives’ physical appearance anyway — a practice that has long been controversial, as The National Law Journal reported in February. Defense lawyers view such appearances as media-driven theatrics that would never be allowed in a courtroom, while congressional lawyers say witnesses sometimes change their mind and answer questions. The D.C. Bar’s Legal Ethics Committee has considered whether congressional lawyers could face sanctions for participating in such hearings.
Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), the subcommittee chairman, said today the executives’ refusal would not deter him from looking into a $535 million federal loan guarantee that Solyndra received. The company filed for bankruptcy this month, leaving taxpayers potentially on the hook.
“We will get to the bottom of why this loan was pushed out to a company whose liquidity issues were a ‘major issue’ to [Department of Energy] staff reviewing the loan back in 2009 — and which ultimately caused its bankruptcy,” Stearns said.
One Democrat, Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), thought that Republicans went too far in peppering the two executives with questions even after he said it became clear today they would not answer any. He called the questions “witness-badgering.”
“That to me is an improper line of questioning. They’re sound-bites. They’re attempts not to get real answers. I think our committee is better than this,” Waxman said.