Politics

‘No Handouts’ Jim Lamon Defends Accepting Billions in Federal Help at Former Solar Venture

U.S. Senate hopeful Jim Lamon, a Paradise Valley Republican, said in March, "We can't have this constant Big Brother government to help."
U.S. Senate hopeful Jim Lamon, a Paradise Valley Republican, said in March, "We can't have this constant Big Brother government to help." Gage Skidmore

Despite billions of dollars in federal help throughout his career in the solar energy sector, U.S. Senate hopeful Jim Lamon insists government should “get the hell out of the way” of American businesses.


Lamon is the former CEO and founder of DEPCOM Power Inc., a Scottsdale-based utility-scale solar company. In 2019, the Paradise Valley Republican claimed on a Freedom Files podcast that neither he nor DEPCOM “ever asked for a subsidy or handout from anyone.”


“No handouts,” Lamon said in March. “We can't have this constant Big Brother government to help. That's not going to allow us to be the strong and the powerful nation that we can be to help our own.”


But in December 2020, Lamon accepted $2,660,600 in federal relief from the Paycheck Protection Program, designed by Congress to provide economic reprieve for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, and utilities, records show.


At the same time, Lamon and other solar industry heads signed a letter calling for the passage of a law that would delay implementing a federal tax credit for solar companies by a year. Solar execs reasoned that the global pandemic had stalled solar projects, rendering the federal help as unnecessary.


“A lot of companies took PPP dollars during a very uncertain time at the beginning of the pandemic in order to protect the jobs of employees,” campaign spokesperson Amy Wilhite told Phoenix New Times on Tuesday. “Jim’s company at the time employed over 1,200 staff, and payroll taxes far exceeded the PPP payment. Plus large federal and state corporate and individual income taxes.”

The PPP money helped protect those jobs at the time, Wilhite said. The company now employs about 300 people.


However, in October 2021, Lamon said DEPCOM “[did] not want to be on subsidies. As soon as we get off [the ground successfully], we want [subsidies] off.”


Then, at the America Uncanceled Conservative Political Action Conference this March, Lamon again claimed he did not want to be on government subsidies, despite building his career with federal help.


He went on to criticize the government’s power to “spend so much money” last year, noting that Congress had disbursed $4 trillion in coronavirus relief spending, even though his company got a slice of the pie.


Lamon believes the solar industry could survive if its tax credit disappeared and said it needed to survive on its own, unsubsidized.


“As an industry, we need to stand on our own two feet,” he said.


Lamon sold DEPCOM to Wichita, Kansas-based Koch Engineered Solutions in November for an undisclosed amount as he shifted focus to his U.S. Senate bid. He’s looking to unseat incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly, but he first needs to win the Republican nomination in Arizona's August 2 primary. His opponents include Attorney General Mark Brnovch and venture capitalist Blake Masters, who leads in the polls this week.


“Blake Masters has never had the pressure of creating jobs and turning a profit so employees can keep their jobs,” Wilhite said. “He has depended on the largesse of a Big Tech billionaire for his livelihood, and for more than $13 million for his campaign. He is 100 percent subsidized and completely indebted to his Big Tech Master."

Wilhite was alluding to Masters' biggest backer, billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal with Elon Musk. Thiel doled out more than $13.5 million from his own coffers to Masters' campaign.


But Lamon, who is the former senior vice president of engineering, procurement, and construction at Tempe-based First Solar, Inc., knows a thing or two about financial help, too.


Lamon held that high-ranking executive position from 2008 to 2012 and was closely involved in the company's decision-making during his tenure there. He was responsible for overseeing the design and construction of solar farms.


In 2011, First Solar received more than $3 billion in loan guarantees from the Obama administration to build the Agua Caliente, Antelope Valley, and Desert Sunlight solar farms in Arizona and California. First Solar later announced it was cutting American jobs.


Lamon took a leading role in the three projects that were funded by the $3 billion in Department of Energy loan guarantees in 2012. 


First Solar implicitly threatened to scrap plans for its Arizona manufacturing plant if it did not receive loan guarantees for the three projects.


“If First Solar’s project applications are not approved, or if they’re delayed beyond September 30, we believe it could jeopardize our ability to close financing ... and, frankly, undermine the rationale for a new manufacturing center in Arizona,” First Solar executive Jens Meyerhoff wrote in a May 2011 letter to a Department of Energy official. 


Lamon’s team built the Antelope Valley Solar Ranch in Los Angeles County in 2012, and he was involved in controversial settlement talks that resulted in furloughed American workers. The solar panel connectors Lamon planned to install were not certified by the common U.S. standard for use with such a large system, which caused a halt in construction and furloughs of 230 construction workers.


The furloughs were “a severe blow" to a town in metro Los Angeles suffering from a high rate of unemployment, where "recent studies found as many as one in three homeowners behind and/or underwater with their mortgages,” Greentech Media reported at the time.


After telling Congress the company was “financially strong,” First Solar laid off 2,000 employees, nearly one-third of its workforce, in 2012. The company didn’t disclose how many layoffs were stateside.


“Jim wasn't the owner, president, or CEO of First Solar,” Wilhite said. “He didn't have control over that company.”


But Lamon took credit in a press release for First Solar’s work at Antelope Valley Solar Ranch, Agua Caliente Solar Project in Yuma County, and Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in Riverside, California.

Power plant loan guarantees totaling $3 billion were all repaid with interest, for a small profit to the taxpayer.


Still, the Republican-led House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform criticized the federal loan that First Solar received for massive power plants in Arizona and California, alleging Energy Department officials broke lending rules to get money to the company.


A report from the committee said two of First Solar’s projects were not “innovative,” a requirement for the loan guarantee. Its authors even alleged an internal effort to falsely consider the technology used in First Solar’s projects innovative, although it was not.


On the 2012 presidential campaign trail, Republican nominee Mitt Romney spotlighted the controversy in a campaign ad, noting that First Solar accepted billions from the federal government and then laid-off workers.

First Solar claimed most of the layoffs were overseas. Chairman Michael Ahearn admitted that “most of our full-time employees are outside the U.S.”


The layoffs coincided with First Solar’s cratering performance on the stock market, in which its stock price had fallen by 85 percent from $137 in April 2011 to less than $21 one year later.


Lamon, who’s promising to curb labor outsourcing and stop buying Chinese goods if elected to the Senate this fall, denies having a role in the decision to lay off American workers.


“His record of investing in his employees, including a 22 percent veteran workforce, while tithing 10 percent of company profits to area charities, and buying billions of Made-in-America products is virtually unparalleled,” Wilhite said.


Lamon maintains that First Solar’s reliance on foreign manufacturing and labor, coupled with the furloughed American workers, is why he departed to found DEPCOM in 2014.


At both First Solar and DEPCOM, Lamon benefited from government programs to help his companies.


In its inaugural year, DEPCOM established a strategic banking relationship with The Biltmore Bank of Arizona, a division of Grandpoint Bank, one of the largest community banks in the Southwest that had nearly $2.5 billion in assets at the time.


Grandpoint Bank participated in the Arizona Innovation Accelerator Fund, funded by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s State Small Business Credit Initiative and managed by the Arizona Commerce Authority.


Still, in April, Lamon preached that “Washington has no clue what it’s like to make a payroll. They’ve got to get the hell out of the way of the American worker and American business and allow them to produce the jobs that we can.”


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Elias Weiss is a staff writer at the Phoenix New Times. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, he reported first for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was editor of the Chatham Star-Tribune in Southern Virginia, where he covered politics and law. In 2020, the Virginia Press Association awarded him first place in the categories of Government Writing and Breaking News Writing for non-daily newspapers statewide.
Contact: Elias Weiss