A solar energy company owned by a Biden megadonor received a $500 million government loan to build a manufacturing facility in India, the Biden administration announced this week, raising questions about whether the company's political clout played any role in the financing decision.
The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation granted the loan to First Solar, which is owned by billionaire Walmart heir Lukas Walton, to build a solar module plant in India. Walton contributed over $300,000 to President Joe Biden's campaign last year, and over $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee, according to campaign finance records.
The loan to First Solar is the "largest single debt financing transaction" issued by the DFC, the agency announced this week. The DFC said the investment in the India project will "promote DFC's commitment to diversifying supply chains," following demands from lawmakers that the agency avoid funding any solar projects connected to forced labor in China.
Ethics watchdogs said the loan raises questions about whether First Solar's political connections played a role in the DFC's decision. The federal financing agency, which was formerly known as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, has faced criticism in the past for funding projects linked to political donors. The loan also comes nine years after the Obama administration came under fire for approving $3 billion in loan guarantees to the same company—funding that Republican lawmakers alleged the company wasn't qualified to receive.
"The United States International Development Finance Corporation, formerly known as OPIC, has a history of deals gone bad when mixing taxpayer dollars with politically connected entities like First Solar," said Tom Anderson, director of the Government Integrity Project at the National Legal and Policy Center. "This agency has a history of favoring entities backed by huge political contributors, like First Solar, by giving them less scrutiny while prioritizing politically connected projects above entities and individuals who are not politically active."
A DFC spokesperson, asking to speak on background, said the deal was carefully assessed and unrelated to politics but declined to say if the White House had any input in the decision.
"This deal is a milestone in the U.S. effort to drive alternative supply chains that do not utilize forced labor, and absolutely nothing to do with politics," the spokesperson told the Washington Free Beacon. "DFC-supported projects undergo a rigorous due diligence process and are assessed based on their creditworthiness, development outcomes, and foreign policy impact. The agency is governed by a public-private board of directors with bipartisan membership."
In 2010, OPIC expedited a $10 million loan to a Hillary Clinton donor while Clinton was serving as secretary of state. The donor was supposed to use the loan to fund a Haiti housing relief project, but instead pocketed the money. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the scam.
First Solar came under scrutiny in 2012, when the GOP-led House Oversight Committee investigated a series of Department of Energy loans issued to solar companies by the Obama administration. The investigation was prompted by a scandal involving another politically connected solar energy company, Solyndra, which had declared bankruptcy and defaulted on a $500 million federal loan.
A House investigation turned up internal DOE emails that indicated First Solar's technology was not considered "innovative" by the loan program's technical director, which was a requirement for receiving the financing.
"The information currently accessible to the public raises the question of whether these companies received approval to use federal lands and taxpayer monies based not on the best value for the American people but the political clout of the recipients," then-senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, said at the time.
Although First Solar's chairman testified to Congress that the company was "financially strong," the business was forced to furlough half of its employees at its solar plant near Los Angeles weeks later.
Last year, First Solar paid $350 million to settle a shareholder lawsuit brought by two United Kingdom pension funds, which claimed the company inflated its stock price and misled investors about its finances.