Solyndra CEO leaves, high-profile fixer lined up

WILMINGTON, Del/WASHINGTON Thu Oct 13, 2011 3:46am IST

Solyndra President and CEO Brian Harrison appears before a joint House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington September 23, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Solyndra President and CEO Brian Harrison appears before a joint House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington September 23, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

WILMINGTON, Del/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Solyndra, the solar panel maker that collapsed despite a U.S. government loan of $535 million, wants to appoint a high-profile bankruptcy expert to run it after the departure of its chief executive.

Solyndra asked the bankruptcy court to let it hire Todd Neilson of Berkeley Research Group LLC as its chief restructuring officer, according to documents filed on Tuesday at the Delaware court.

Neilson, a former FBI agent, was bankruptcy trustee for former world boxing champion Mike Tyson, hip-hop record label Death Row Records and its controversial chief executive Marion "Suge" Knight Jr, his website shows.

He would essentially take up the role of chief executive after the previous CEO, Brian Harrison "left the company as scheduled on October 7," the company said in the filing, giving no further details.

Harrison made headlines last month when he refused to answer questions from angry Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, invoking his right against self-incrimination provided by the Constitution.

Solyndra was raided by the FBI after it filed for bankruptcy, and the FBI also visited Harrison's home.

Neilson's firm, which has an hourly billing rate of $770, expects it would likely bill $900,000 to $1.1 million for its services, according to the court filing.

Neilson was not immediately available for comment.

Neither Harrison's lawyer nor a Solyndra spokesman could be reached for comment.

POLITICAL EMBARRASSMENT

Solyndra filed for bankruptcy on September 6, burdened with $783 million of secured debt and squeezed by falling prices for solar panels caused by an industry glut.

The Department of Energy guaranteed a $535 million loan to the company that Solyndra has said may not be repaid in full.

Its downfall has become a political embarrassment for the Obama administration, which had promoted it as an example of how it planned to spur development in clean energy technology.

An Energy Department spokesman declined comment on Solyndra's new request, and on Harrison's departure.

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are investigating the loan, and plan a hearing for Friday to grill two Treasury Department officials on their concerns about the deal.

CREDITORS HOPE FOR RESCUE

Solyndra's request to hire Neilson comes ahead of a Monday hearing in Delaware, where U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Mary Walrath will rule on a request from the U.S. Justice Department to appoint a Chapter 11 bankruptcy trustee.

Unsecured creditors have argued that appointment, saying that would fuel "the already highly charged negative atmosphere" at a time when Solyndra is courting buyers.

Solyndra said it has shared confidential information with about 20 potential buyers who signed nondisclosure agreements, and wants to extend a deadline for bids for the company to November 16, providing a trustee is not appointed.

Earlier, the court had given the company an October 25 deadline for bids.

The company also was ordered to attend a major solar industry trade show in Dallas next week to try to find a buyer.

An investment banker who tried to find a buyer for Stirling Energy Systems, a solar company that filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last month, said selling Solyndra will be tough.

"Two factors weigh against any kind of sale: the government investigations -- no buyer wants to be tainted by that even in sale -- and the market for solar manufacturing just does not exist," said Scott Victor, managing director of SSG Capital.

"We tried to sell another solar company over the summer and there is just an abundance of (photovoltaic cells) on the market from China," Victor said.

(Additional reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; editing by Philip Barbara)