Ahead of Congressional Hearing, Group Releases Government Records Showing How Political Appointee Drove Abrupt Cancellation of Previously Approved Grant, Raising Questions of Roughly $1M Waste

Washington, D.C. —Today, Democracy Forward asked that the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General open an investigation into the Trump administration’s unexplained decision to cancel and reissue a previously approved solar technology grant competition just days before the awardees were to be announced. According to staff estimates in internal documents, the last-minute cancellation and reissue, led by Trump official Cathy Tripodi, may have wasted $1 million of taxpayer funds.  The timing and lack of explanation raises concerns about mismanagement and questions about whether this decision could have been motivated by improper political considerations.

“The Trump administration’s repeated politicization of grant-making across the government underscores the need to investigate how DOE political appointees handled the solar grant process,” said Democracy Forward Counsel and Legal Policy Director Aman George. “The public deserves to know why the administration cancelled the process days before awards were to be announced, potentially wasting $1 million on work that was all for naught.”

In April 2018, former Energy Secretary Rick Perry approved a grant funding opportunity announcement (FOA) for solar technology innovation and set a September 2018 date to announce final grant recipients. Over 300 candidates invested their time and energy to participate in the multi-part grant application process, and numerous DOE staff members and external reviewers expended time and resources to review and narrow the applicant pool to 14 grantees. Yet, just three days before the deadline to reveal grant finalists, DOE abruptly and without explanation cancelled the FOA and announced that it would reissue the grant. The reissued grant included a new criterion of “geographic diversity.”

As early as July 2018, almost immediately after her appointment as Acting Assistant Secretary for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Tripodi expressed an interest in amending the grant FOAs, but was warned by career staff that “[i]t is too late to change any of the criteria for those competitions that are already closed.” Tripodi ignored this advice, and two months after the original grant application period closed, began preparations for a new FOA while leaving applicants, grant reviewers, many DOE staff, and congressional authorizers and appropriators in the dark, the emails show.

Documents that Democracy Forward obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against DOE show that staff estimated that roughly $1 million of DOE’s resources had been “already expended” to process the original solar grant FOA, indicating that Tripodi’s abrupt cancellation of that FOA resulted in significant waste.

The group’s request for an investigation is filed on the eve of a Congressional hearing on EERE’s management and spending.

The documents Democracy Forward obtained through this FOIA litigation can be found here. Through litigation, the group has successfully forced the Department of Health and Human Services to reinstate unlawfully terminated Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program grants and has also forced EPA to reverse its unlawful termination of funding to a renowned environmentally-focused news outlet.

The letter was submitted to the Office of Inspector General on Tuesday, February 4, 2020.

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