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White House Debated Dropping Energy Secretary

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FILE: In this March, 30, 2011, photo, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, left, accompanied by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington. (AP2011)

Top officials at the White House circulated a plan calling for the ouster of Energy Secretary Steven Chu and other top Energy Department officials as the administration braced for a political storm brewing over the failing solar energy company Solyndra.

An email from a clean-energy activist and former official in President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign said Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was a brilliant man but "not perfect" for other critical DOE missions, including creating jobs. The Feb. 25 email from Dan Carol, a former issues adviser in Obama's campaign, was circulated by then-Chief of Staff Peter Rouse and seen by at least 18 White House officials, including senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and then-energy adviser Carol Browner.

The emails were released late Friday by the government in response to a subpoena by House Republicans, who are investigating a $528 million federal loan received by Solyndra Inc. of Fremont, Calif. The firm later went bankrupt and laid off its 1,100 workers.

A White House spokesman said Friday the plan to oust Chu was not taken very seriously.

Dan Leistikow, a spokesman for Chu, called Carol "an activist with an agenda" and said his email was not solicited by the White House. His suggestion about Chu was not taken seriously, Leistikow said.

Rouse, in a March 14 email to Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy-Ann DeParle, passed along Carol's proposal, saying he was "not that interested in Dan's criticism of Secretary Chu," but said Carol was smart and shared the president's views on energy policy. Rouse asked White House officials to comment on Carol's analysis of the administration's energy policy.

In the three-page email, Carol said Chu should be reassigned as chief scientist at Energy, where he could "reinspire and reorganize" DOE's labs.

"This is a HUGE job and he would be perfect for it," Carol said, adding that Chu "is a wonderful and brilliant man, but he is not perfect for the other critical DOE mission: deploying existing technologies at scale and creating jobs."

The memo also says the energy secretary should be "comfortable meeting with bankers," adding that the bookish Chu is not comfortable doing that. Carol also recommended an overhaul of Energy Department staff, including Chu's deputy, the department's chief of staff and its undersecretary.

Carol acknowledged that Obama was unlikely to replace Chu, "out of personal affection or perhaps concern of perceived public perception of failure."

Even if Chu were not reassigned, Carol added, the Energy Department should redirect its efforts on the $38 billion loan guarantee program and other spending. "There is a still A LOT of money over there that could be repurposed to better uses," he wrote.

Carol suggested Navy Secretary Ray Mabus as a replacement for Chu, adding that the new secretary should not come from Silicon Valley. Such an appointment "will get caught up in the wave of GOP attacks that are surely coming over Solyndra and other inside DOE deals that have gone to Obama donors and have underperformed," Carol wrote.

Solyndra's implosion and revelations that administration officials rushed to complete the loan in time for a September 2009 groundbreaking have become an embarrassment for Obama and a rallying cry for GOP critics of his green energy program.

The Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee has subpoenaed White House communications on Solyndra and has released thousands of pages of emails related to the company.

The White House on Friday rejected the GOP subpoena, calling it overly broad. Instead officials provided 135 pages of documents that administration officials said meet the "legitimate oversight interests" of congressional investigators.

In a letter to top Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee Friday, White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said the documents "do not contain evidence of favoritism to political supporters or any wrongdoing by the White House in connection with the Solyndra loan guarantee." GOP lawmakers have said the loan to Solyndra appears politically motivated, and that major Obama donors received unusual access to the White House.

GOP Reps. Fred Upton and Cliff Stearns, who lead the energy committee and a subcommittee on investigations, respectively, said in a statement Friday that they appreciated the White House response to the subpoena.

"We're hoping this is the beginning of an effort to finally make public these missing pieces of a process that left us all holding the bag for over 500 million dollars," said Upton, of Michigan, and Stearns, of Florida.

Chu is scheduled to testify before the energy panel on Thursday.

Chu's spokesman, Leistikow, said the emails released Friday, and others released by the administration in recent weeks, "reaffirm that decisions were made on the merits and that all of the baseless allegations about political considerations just aren't borne out by the facts."