Nobody gives up information easily.
So says Todd Harrison, the congressional investigator who has sought to discover how Solyndra LLC came to win a $535 million U.S. loan guarantee only to file for bankruptcy protection two years later.
“Whether it’s blatant lies or lies of omission, nobody tells you the truth the first time around,” Harrison said in an interview.
The 41-year-old chief counsel to the Republican-led House Energy and Commerce Committee’s investigations panel developed his hard-boiled philosophy working as prosecutor in New York. There he dealt with homicides and a plot to blow up the city’s Herald Square subway station, learning in the process how to build a case, the “tells” that show when someone is lying, and the best way to “flip” a witness.
“You want to let them know that you have the goods on them,” he said.
Solyndra isn’t a “ripped-from-the-headlines” drama that would merit an episode on “Law & Order,” the television series that was based in part on cases handled by the Manhattan district attorney’s office where Harrison previously worked.
Even so, Harrison said his prosecutorial instincts peaked when company executives and Obama administration officials offered assurances that the solar-panel maker was on track last summer, instead of satisfying committee requests for documents. Other recipients of U.S. guarantees now are under scrutiny, although Harrison won’t identify the companies.
Solyndra, which made solar panels of cylinder-shaped tubes, fired its 1,100 workers before filing for bankruptcy protection in September, becoming Exhibit A for Republicans who say the administration’s support of clean energy wasted taxpayer dollars from an Energy Department loan-guarantee program.
The White House blamed unforeseen market forces for Solyndra’s collapse. After a year, the committee’s investigation has turned into a “fishing expedition,” administration officials and congressional Democrats say.
“It is troubling that House members would use their investigative authority and taxpayer resources to seek a political advantage,” Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said in an e-mail, referring to news reports that House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has made oversight of the administration’s policies a priority. He declined to comment on Harrison’s role in the investigation.
After two congressional subpoenas, Harrison and his team have compiled more than 187,000 pages of communications and other documents from the White House and federal agencies that had an oversight role, including the Energy Department, which approved the 2009 loan guarantee, and the Office of Management and Budget, which reviewed the risk of backing the company. The panel set today for the White House to comply with a November subpoena for all Solyndra-related documents.
Investigators have also conducted nine interviews with administration officials, according to Schultz.
The information doesn’t back up Republican assertions that the White House may have intervened in the award as a favor to George Kaiser, the fundraiser for President Barack Obama and Oklahoma billionaire whose foundation was a major investor in Solyndra, Schultz said.
Kaiser told congressional aides during a two-hour interview that he never lobbied for Solyndra, according to a letter House Democrats released in November.
Harrison isn’t willing to concede the point, noting that he hasn’t had access to all the documents he wants. A subcommittee meeting scheduled for Feb. 17 to consider additional subpoenas was canceled after the White House agreed to let four officials speak with the congressional investigators.
Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has said the investigation has revealed a cozy relationship between the White House and Solyndra’s investors.
“If our investigation ends up showing that there was no quid pro quo, then great,” said Harrison, who oversees a team of 12 people, including a forensic accountant. “I still think it’s an open question.”
Harrison’s career path is unusual in Washington, where staffers typically start as government interns or low-ranking aides and work their way up.
After graduating from Yale University and American University’s Washington School of Law, Harrison, a Republican, joined the New York district attorney’s office under Robert Morgenthau, who held the post for 34 years until his 2009 retirement.
Harrison’s determination in pursuit of cases, like a dog clenching food, earned him the nickname “T-bone” among colleagues, said Jack Smith, who worked with Harrison in both the district attorney’s office and later in the U.S. Attorney’s eastern district New York branch.
“Todd is all about the facts,” Smith, who now leads the U.S. Justice Department public integrity division in Washington, said in an interview. “If someone in my family was the victim of a crime, I would want Todd to be the prosecutor.”
One case Harrison investigated involved a young couple that prosecutors said at the spur of the moment decided to strangle the girl’s father.
The couple waited in the house for the mother to come home, then strangled her. Both bodies apparently sat in the apartment for days until being dumped in the East River. The couple eventually pleaded guilty.
‘Lie a Little Bit’
Harrison joined the U.S. Attorney’s office for the eastern district of New York in 2002, where he was deputy chief of the violent crimes and terrorism division. There, he led an investigation into a plot to blow-up the Herald Square subway stop in Manhattan. In that case, he said he persuaded one of two plotters to testify against the other.
“In an interrogation like that, you want them to lie a little bit,” Harrison said, describing his technique for getting a suspect to flip into a witness. “You can then immediately trip them up, confront them with their lies, sort of smack ‘em in the face a little bit that way, and in theory you’ll get the truth after that.”
Harrison said he was attracted to the prosecutor job because it was about doing the right thing. He said it also was a rush for a young, smart, self-described “cocky” attorney who wasn’t afraid to square off with judges with three decades more experience.
“My mom told me at a young age that I would probably be a lawyer,” he said. “I don’t think she meant it as a compliment, frankly.”
‘Next Shiny Object’
Harrison said the committee’s investigation has expanded beyond Solyndra to other companies that received U.S. loan guarantees. He won’t identify which recipients for fear of affecting their operations.
He said he’s determined to maintain focus on the Energy Department loan-guarantee program, and not be distracted by the “next shiny object” that often sidetracks congressional oversight.
“We’re not done with the investigation,” he said. Recalling lessons as a prosecutor, Harrison said: “Everyone says, ‘I wasn’t there’ until you show them a fingerprint from the bank robbery and then they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I was there.’”