The Solyndra – Walmart Connection

solar graphicA lot has been said about the ties of George Kaiser, a campaign contribution bundler for President Obama’s 2008 campaign, to the Solyndra bankruptcy scandal that likely has cost taxpayers $535 million thanks to a Department of Energy loan guarantee. Kaiser’s investment firm, Argonaut Venture Capital, held over 35 percent of the failed solar company’s stock – more than anyone else.

But next in line (with 11 percent) behind Argonaut in the Solyndra stakes is Madrone Capital Partners, which is managed by a trio whom the political Left has attempted to tie to support for Republicans. Of course, “they did it too” is not a legitimate defense, but in this case, it’s not a portrayal of the entire picture either.

Madrone is tied to the Walton family – of Walmart fame – and is co-managed by an in-law, Gregory Penner, who also serves as a Walmart director. He is the son-in-law of S. Robson “Rob” Walton, married to his daughter Carrie. Rob, Walmart Stores’ chairman of the board, is one of founder Sam Walton’s sons. Madrone’s other partners are listed as Jameson “Jamie” McJunkin and Thomas Patterson, and McJunkin is also a director for Solyndra.

Walmart can no longer be portrayed as a “conservative” or “Republican” company. Beginning under former CEO Lee Scott, and accelerating under present CEO Mike Duke, Walmart has become a powerful backer of a host of left-wing causes. This shift is detailed in an NLPC Special Report titled Wal-Mart Embraces Controversial Causes: Bid to Appease Liberal Interest Groups Will Likely Fail, Hurt Business.

Madrone Capital is based in Menlo Park, Calif., about a 30-minute drive across Dumbarton Bridge over San Francisco Bay from Fremont, where Solyndra is based. According to a company that produces inverters for solar power – Enphase Energy, where McJunkin also serves as a director – Madrone “invests on behalf of members of the Walton Family with a long-term, patient capital approach,” and McJunkin “leads Madrone’s efforts in sustainability and alternative energy.” While it can’t be known for certain how much of Madrone’s funds come from the Waltons, the fact that McJunkin allows his Enphase bio to cite them specifically as their source indicates it is likely a hefty percentage, if not all of it.

So Madrone, and therefore the Waltons, had a healthy stake in Solyndra – second only to Kaiser. But like most wise investment firms, their interests are diversified to reduce risk and spread the opportunity for success. For example, Madrone is also invested in MicroSeismic, Inc., which provides services for the natural gas and oil shale hydraulic fracturing industries. Similarly Kaiser, the Obama campaign bundler, is an oilman and banker, but also apparently had a desire to bring Solyndra jobs to his hometown of Tulsa, Okla. He has visited the White House 16 times since 2009, Businessweek reports.

That’s quite a bit more passion for Solyndra than Madrone and the Waltons have shown, although it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they, too, may have made a pitch through other channels on the failed solar company’s behalf. After all, as has been reported repeatedly by NLPC, the Walton family – while yes, often supporting Republican candidates and particularly passionate about the school choice issue – has also thrown considerable money into environmental causes. Even more significant, Walmart incessantly boasts of its commitments to “sustainability,” cap-and-trade, and even ObamaCare. Press releases about new solar panels installed at the company’s stores are issued regularly. Walmart’s reputation for environmental activism became so great that the company is now the subject of a fawning book titled Force of Nature, The Unlikely Story of Walmart’s Green Revolution: How It Could Transform Business and Save the World, about their allegedly conservationist practices, despite eight consecutive quarters of same-store sales declines.

And tying the Waltons, and Madrone Capital, exclusively to the back pockets of Republicans would be incorrect also. After all, they brought liberal former Al Gore aide Leslie Dach into a key executive role with Walmart, and he’s often out front on the company’s sustainability initiatives. And while GOP candidates have enjoyed support from some Waltons and Madrone partners, more recently their money has been thrown Democrats’ way also.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Madrone’s Greg Penner and his wife Carrie – the daughter of Walmart chairman of the board Rob Walton – most recently gave $7,200 to the successful U.S. Senate campaign of Democrat Michael Bennet, from Colorado. Mrs. Penner also donated $2,300 to President Obama’s 2008 campaign, and Greg Penner gave $500 to U.S. Rep. Joe Baca, also a Democrat. The Penners also contributed $3,600 to Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss’s 2008 Senate campaign, and Mrs. Penner gave $2,400 to the unsuccessful Senate candidacy of California Republican Tom Campbell. As for Madrone’s other partners, McJunkin has no records of political donations, and Thomas Patterson has made five contributions totaling $8,900 to U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., who apparently is a buddy from their days together on the Harvard University lightweight crew team.

Donations from Walmart Stores’ Political Action Committee, since 2008, have been fairly balanced between Democrats ($1.285 million) and Republicans ($1.268 million), according to CRP records.

Regardless of political interests, the Republicans on the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, under the Energy and Commerce Committee, want to know what McJunkin and Madrone knew and when they knew it with regard to Solyndra. Madrone and Kaiser’s Argonaut Capital reportedly infused the solar company with $75 million in credit to enhance its liquidity for the purposes of helping with its Department of Energy loan. That money is apparently recoverable by the creditors before taxpayers can see any possible payback from the $535 million government loan.

“Green” pork and ill-advised “renewable” investments have been embraced by both political parties, and many of the Waltons have shown their willingness to throw away many of their billions of dollars on such schemes. But they alone should be stuck with the successes and failures, and leave the taxpayers out of it. Companies like Walmart should pay market price out of their own coffers for solar initiatives, without the benefit of tax breaks intended for special interests. How many times does government have to demonstrate the failure of its market interventions before politicians get the idea they should hang it up?

At the Walmart annual meeting in June, NLPC sponsored a shareholder proposal on Walmart’s lobbying priorities. During his remarks, NLPC President Peter Flaherty criticized the company’s embrace of alternative energy:

Walmart is in the grip of political ideologues. On its website it says that its goal is to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy, which is neither achievable nor desirable. This goal is revealing, however, about the philosophical orientation of the people behind it. They seem bothered by capitalism, progress, technology and the 21st century itself.

Wind generates two tenths of one percent of the world’s energy.  It cannot compete with fossil fuels. Same for solar. These industries exist ONLY because of government subsidies, which in the coming years will be phased out as governments run out of money. It is already happening in Europe. Trust me, Walmart is never going to be 100% supplied by renewable energy.

Walmart pushes weird products like the compact fluorescent lights in the name of fighting global warming. These bulbs throw off a harsh light, and are big problem if you break them because they contain mercury. Consumers did not ask for them.

Walmart announced plans to eliminate millions of tons of carbon emissions from its global supply chain by the end of 2015, thus imposing its political agenda on its suppliers. Leslie Dach’s friends used to complain that Walmart was too big and powerful because it could dictate to its suppliers. I guess that it is OK now that this power is being put to THEIR political ends.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and is executive director of American Tradition Institute.