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Tuesday, January 18, 2011 

“Everyone has a past”

 

Darrell Issa draws an important distinction when judging what should and should not be investigated. For now, Issa says his focus is not delving deep into the personal histories of politicians- as former Oversight Chairman Dan Burton became notorious for during the Clinton Administration. "These are items that occurred before the President was elected," Issa tells Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker. "I would not have viewed them as particularly significant." Given the rich and questionable past that's brought Darrell Issa to his new perch, it's an understandable distinction to make; Burton-like scrutiny would do Issa no favors.
 
In a long profile out yesterday, Lizza looks deep into Darrell Issa's past and present. He starts from the beginning, reeling off lingering questions from Issa's past, and chronicling many of the inconsistencies in the stories Issa has told when compared with newspaper and police reports, as well as accounts from eyewitnesses, colleagues and family members. They include:
 
  • Allegations of car theft and illegal weapons charges in 1972.
  • Conflicting statements and accusations of grand theft and an attempt to fraudulently sell Issa's car and collect insurance in 1979.
  • In 1981, leaving the scene of a car accident that left a woman injured, and settling out of court for medical costs.
  • The hostile takeover of his first company that sounds more like a description of a recent foreclosure proceeding than what we might consider the hallmark of American entrepreneurship, including using a gun when firing an employee.
  • Allegations of resume polishing—specifically related to Issa’s military service and a Business award he claimed to have received from Inc. Magazine.
  • Questions around where Issa got the money to start his businesses. Specifically, when Issa was asked about his brother’s suggestion that “(Issa) would lend people money and get money back that way when he was in the service. He would buy and sell cars sometimes. He would get cars at a very good price, keep them, and sell them,” Lizza recounted, “There was a pause on the phone,” before Issa gave his own, carefully worded account that ended with “everyone has a past.”
  • And in 1982, a suspicious fire -- termed "incendiary" by the insurance company -- destroyed Issa's factory just days after Issa is alleged to have removed important company records and equipment, and mere weeks after he more than quadrupled his fire insurance.
 
This was all before Issa made his hundreds of millions of dollars, and before his business eventually tempted into politics. But Lizza makes clear that Issa is extremely conscious of the pattern these incidents suggest:
 
“He was concerned about all my questions regarding his early life and didn’t see why they were newsworthy. The conversation was awkward.”
 
Lizza describes staffers and former staffers sitting around the office "talking trash" about departing Democrats. He notes how Issa’s legislative director has become a lobbyist, and how Issa himself spent a lot of time lobbying lawmakers prior to entering politics—two facts that undermine any pretense that Issa’s reign as Oversight Chair reflects a break from politics as usual.  That's if Issa’s soliciting corporate special interests for insights on how to run his committee didn’t destroy that pretense already.
 
Lizza also recounts a number of encounters with Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella -- a 27 year old Issa calls his “secret weapon” -- whose open derision of the press and boasting about his ability to manipulate reporters suggests a uniquely “Issa-like” propensity for foot in mouth disease.  Case-in-point, Bardella’s observations from the floor of a recent convention in Las Vegas, which sounded more like the work of a fraternity spokesman, than that of a serious political figure:
 
“They don’t need any bells or whistles or naked women. But I enjoy the ones that do. I’m a guy, you know. Nothing wrong with admiring God’s work—the plastic surgeon’s work, too, I’m sure. Some of these chicks, though..."
 
Meanwhile, Lizza explains what aides call 'Issa Enterprises' - a concerted effort by Issa and his staff to rebrand Issa and change the perception of him in the media and the public.
 
Bardella is unabashed about his ability to plant stories, and he's candid about a process that appears far more focused on political gamesmanship than advocating for good government:
 
“My goal is very simple,” he said. “I’m going to make Darrell Issa an actual political figure. I’m going to focus like a laser beam on the five hundred people here who care about this crap, and that’s it. We’ve been catering more to that audience, so Darrell can expand his sphere of influence here among people who track who’s up, who’s down, who wins, who loses.”
 
Bardella’s statement might also offer insight as to how Issa went from “devoting his life” to working towards Middle East peace in 2003 (something he expressed when tearfully dropping out of the CA Gubernatorial Recall), to a single minded obsession with ACORN and the policy priorities of Glenn Beck just five years later.
 
Issa has a long and acknowledged history of “grandstanding” and being deeply partisan.  He undeniably faces a struggle to overcome legitimate expectations that he's set to become Dan Burton 2.0, picking up where hyperbolic Clinton-era investigations left off. And as Lizza understates, "[t]he transformation is a work in progress."
 
When asked, Issa has answers ready for all the incidents in the past, explaining himself as a victim alternately either of circumstance or of bad actors targeting him unfairly: "My brother did it." "I didn't come in in a way where I ever saw the sign." "As far as I know, it wasn't loaded." "I can't believe [the car-theft accusor] ended his career as a medium-rank sergeant with an alcohol problem."
 
The former business partner who accused him of arson was "a lowlife" and the reporter who broke the story "is a notorious hatchet man." And "[if] the fire department had done a competent job..." And the real benefiary of the fire was another man -- who says "Issa is the most evil man I ever met."
 
To hear Issa tell it, more than a decade of being at the heart of a variety of alleged crimes is all an accident. At the same time, the pitch is that his decade in politics as a bitter and dramatic partisan have no bearing on the course he'll chart as chair of the Oversight Committee.
 
Ultimately, it’s hard to know whether Issa Enterprises’ goal in doing the New Yorker profile was to answer the many questions surrounding Darrell Issa’s past, reinvent his national profile, or both.  Regardless, if you read the piece, you are left with far more questions than answers.
 
While the whole truth of Issa's past may never be completely clear, what he does with the Oversight Committee will be plenty public. His history says Issa will simply be either Dan Burton 2.0 or Glenn Beck with subpoena power. While his team at Issa Enterprises may have a carefully-crafted media strategy to reinvent Darrell Issa's persona, it will be his actions that count. 

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