I read this story back in January of this year, so I knew what was coming! The story I just posted it about Darrell Issa seems to be the beginning . . .
THE POLITICAL SCENE
DON’T LOOK BACK
Darrell Issa, the congressman about to make life more difficult for President Obama, has had some troubles of his own.
by Ryan Lizza JANUARY 24, 2011
Issa, the new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is seen as a future leader of his party.
A few days before Christmas, the mood in Representative Darrell Issa’s office was jovial. Outside, the hallways were filled with the House’s equivalent of scalps: wooden pallets piled high with shrink-wrapped boxes belonging to defeated or retiring Democrats. Inside, some of Issa’s closest advisers sat around talking trash. Issa, a six-term California Republican, had recently been elected chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which, according to House rules, “may at any time conduct investigations of any matter.” Now that he had been given the power to subpoena, investigate, and harass the Obama Administration, Issa was being described as a future leader of his party—and the man most likely to weaken the President before the 2012 election.
Issa’s chief of staff, Dale Neugebauer, was wedged into a chair before a semicircular desk. He turned to welcome Kurt Bardella, Issa’s spokesman. On a couch sat Jason Scism, the congressman’s longtime legislative director, who had recently left to become a lobbyist for Research in Motion, the manufacturer of the BlackBerry.
Bardella removed his suit jacket, picked up four darts, and started tossing them with near-perfect aim at a well-used board on the wall. “The thing we discovered with Jason is that he’s unable to play darts sober,” Neugebauer said. “Kurt is actually a phenomenal dart player, but Jason, once he gets about six beers in him, is also phenomenal. They call him Dead-Eye.”
The conversation turned to Issa’s feats of electrical and mechanical engineering. During a recent interview with the Times, Issa repaired a reporter’s old-fashioned microcassette recorder. Years ago, Neugebauer recalled, Issa fixed a malfunctioning sound board in the middle of a talk-show interview.
An inveterate gadget junkie who was once the chairman of the Consumer Electronics Association, Issa often acts as the office’s I.T. manager. “If someone’s got a computer problem and he hears about it, he is, like, sitting down at your desk fixing it,” Neugebauer said. “That’s the one thing I always tell the staff: If your computer’s not working, do not tell him!”
Issa (pronounced “Ice-uh”) is fifty-seven years old and six feet tall, with a prominent nose and ink-black hair neatly parted on one side. He was giving a tour of his suite to two Republican congressmen and was in an adjoining room directing their attention to the ceiling. In each office, Issa has removed several ceiling tiles and replaced them with plastic panels depicting blue sky and wispy clouds, making you feel as if you were inside a Super Mario Bros. game. Next, he showed his visitors an alcove that had once been stuffed with filing cabinets. He told about a long-running battle he’d had with the Architect of the Capitol, who refused to allow him to remove the cabinets. Fed up with the bureaucracy, he simply instructed his staff to take them out, adding precious workspace. New members of Congress make pilgrimages to Issa’s office to see his modifications. He’s become something like the Martha Stewart of the Republican Party.
He pointed to a row of old filing cabinets hidden behind a curtain that he had not yet managed to take out. “Why?” one of the congressmen asked incredulously. Issa shook his head and began detailing a complicated clash involving sprinklers and a fire-code regulation.
The three men moved into Issa’s personal office, where Issa had chosen and arranged every piece of furniture and bit of décor. On one wall were sixteen framed patents under Issa’s name from his time as a car-alarm manufacturer, in the eighties and nineties. “Advanced embedded codehopping system having masterfixed code encryption,” one said. On the opposite wall, there was a silver-framed portrait of his paternal grandfather, who was born in Lebanon. Nearby hung an oil painting by the artist Andy Thomas depicting eight Republican Presidents sitting around a table playing poker. In another corner, a similar painting by the same artist showed eight Democrats. Issa pointed to the Presidents. “My committee’s job is to trust no Administration,” he said.
Next up was a glass case in which dozens of military coins were displayed, each bearing the insignia of a different unit of the armed forces. Issa pulled a coin out of a desk drawer, prompting one of the other congressmen to take a coin from his pocket. “Oh, very nice! Yours is bigger than mine!” Issa said. The three men laughed. “I don’t know why people think size doesn’t matter!”
Issa’s scheduler entered the room and broke up the fun. “We’re behind schedule, I’m sorry,” she announced. Issa called out after the departing congressmen, “You can have your office just like mine, but you can’t have my office!”
Darrell Edward Issa grew up outside Cleveland, the second of six children. “Cleveland’s a great place when you’re a kid,” he likes to joke. “You hardly ever get sunburned, without the sun shining.” His mother was a Mormon and his father, who was Eastern Orthodox, worked as a truck salesman. The big event of his youth was moving from a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in an ethnically Hungarian and Italian suburb to a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Cleveland Heights. “You just can’t have eight people in one john,” he said. “I grew up working for a rabbi, in a Jewish Boy Scout group, in which the services were on Saturdays, going to bar mitzvahs galore, learning that gefilte fish ain’t all that good, and being immersed in that society and not really thinking of myself, defining myself, as an Arab. We defined ourselves as: ‘Hey, we’re like Danny Thomas, we’re Lebanese.’ ”
In 1970, on his seventeenth birthday, Issa dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Army. He has said that he had high test scores, which led to an offer to join an explosive-ordnance-disposal unit. “They showed us this movie about taking apart bombs in World War Two,” he told me. “And they gave you this rah-rah speech and said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to sign up for E.O.D.?’ ” After interviewing Issa in 1990, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that his E.O.D. unit had provided security for President Richard Nixon and had swept the stadium for bombs when Nixon attended a game of the 1971 Pirates-Orioles World Series.
In 1972, Issa’s father suffered a heart attack, and the Army granted Issa a hardship discharge. He earned a G.E.D. and enrolled in Siena Heights University, a small college in Adrian, Michigan. He transferred to Kent State, where he was a member of the campus R.O.T.C. This was a “pivotal point in Darrell’s history,” his older brother, William, said. “The marked leftist bent by a portion of the student body may have helped further define his already formed conservative perspective.” After graduating, he returned to the Army, which moved him to different bases around the country. He served until 1980, when he was stationed at Fort Ord, in Monterey, California. During one of his political campaigns, he said that he received the “highest possible” ratings while in the Army.
During this period, Issa married his college sweetheart, Marcia Enyart, but the union didn’t last. When he returned to civilian life, he remarried. He met his second wife, Kathy Stanton, when she locked her keys inside her apartment and Issa, who lived next door, gallantly scaled a balcony and broke into her place. “He was in within thirty seconds,” Kathy recalled. “I had to go out with him after that.” The couple bought into a small company run by a friend of Issa’s from the Boy Scouts, and they moved from California to Cleveland. In a 1998 campaign ad, Issa said that the investment comprised “our life savings of seven thousand dollars.”
The company, Quantum Enterprises, assembled electronics such as bug zappers, FM power boosters, and CB radio parts for other companies. It was struggling when Issa made his investment, but not as badly as one of its clients, Steal Stopper International, which made car alarms. Issa acquired Steal Stopper in February, 1982, began to run the company himself, and turned it around. That year, he sold two hundred thousand car alarms to Ford, and was planning to sell Ford a million the following year. He also was negotiating a major contract with Toyota.
At 2:35 A.M. on September 7, 1982, the phone rang in Issa’s house. The Quantum and Steal Stopper office and factory was on fire. Issa got dressed and drove the seven miles from his house, in Oakwood Village, to his workplace, in Maple Heights. He arrived by 3 A.M., to find blue flames shooting from holes in the roof. Four fire engines, a helicopter, and forty-three firefighters from three departments responded to the alarm. When the firemen entered the building, they encountered black smoke so thick they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces. The fire took three hours to bring under control.
A lieutenant in the Maple Heights Fire Department noted in his incident report that the “cause of this fire appears to be electrical.” The fire had started at a workbench where light bulbs for bug zappers were tested. Almost everything of value was gone. Fortunately for Issa, he had recently increased his fire insurance.
Within months, he had opened the business at a new location nearby. The United States was entering a decade-long surge in auto thefts, the Steal Stopper line took off, and Issa signed deals with BMW, Rolls-Royce, General Motors, and other major car manufacturers. In 1985, he sold his company to a California firm that made home alarm systems, and he moved to San Diego to work for the new entity. Soon afterward, he left to start another car-alarm company, called Directed Electronics, Inc. D.E.I. shared Issa’s initials and his voice, which he recorded for the company’s signature product, the Viper, an alarm that warns potential car thieves (as well as passing trucks and bursts of wind), “Please step away from the car.”
Issa, who still owns a stake in the company through a family foundation, can recall his exact sales figures from the era. “In 1985, we did about a million dollars,” he said. “In 1986, we did $2.1 million; in 1987, we did $2.7 million. The next year, 1988, we did seven million. And then about fourteen in 1989. We got up to about one hundred million. The company does about two hundred and twenty million dollars now.”
In 1994, according to one version of Issa’s official biography, he “received Inc. Magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award.” He began to work with consumer-electronics trade associations, made trips to Washington to lobby for the industry, and started to get involved in politics. In an increasingly Democratic state, he soon became one of the biggest donors to Republicans. He helped fund Proposition 209, a 1996 ballot initiative that would ban affirmative action in public institutions. It passed with fifty-five per cent of the vote. He helped bring the Republican Convention to San Diego in 1996 and got to know the Party leaders. “It was an evolution of involvement,” Issa told me.
In 1997, he decided to run for the United States Senate. His impressive background—working-class high-school dropout, Army officer who helped protect the President, and self-made high-tech tycoon interested in law and order—helped him attract some of the best campaign operatives in California. He started out by spending two million dollars on radio ads. One of the first declared, “Sometimes people mispronounce his name, but, once you get to know Darrell Issa, you discover this is a life with more great chapters yet to be written.”
Issa didn’t even win the Republican primary. Although he outspent his main opponent, Matt Fong, the state treasurer, by some nine million dollars, he lost by five points. His campaign fell apart after a burst of investigative reporting raised serious questions about his honesty and his past. Many politicians have committed indiscretions in earlier years: maybe they had an affair or hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny. Issa, it turned out, had, among other things, been indicted for stealing a car, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and accused by former associates of burning down a building.
In May of 1998, Lance Williams, of the San Francisco Examiner, reported that Issa had not always received the “highest possible” ratings in the Army. In fact, at one point he “received unsatisfactory conduct and efficiency ratings and was transferred to a supply depot.” Williams also discovered that Issa didn’t provide security for Nixon at the 1971 World Series, because Nixon didn’t attend any of the games.
A member of Issa’s Army unit, Jay Bergey, told Williams that his most vivid recollection of the young Issa was that in December, 1971, Issa stole his car, a yellow Dodge Charger. “I confronted Issa,” Bergey said in 1998. “I got in his face and threatened to kill him, and magically my car reappeared the next day, abandoned on the turnpike.”
Bergey died of lung cancer in 2002, but his widow, Joyce, recently said to me that she remembered her husband telling the story of the stolen Dodge Charger. She laughed when she heard that Issa is now a prominent member of Congress. “Well, he probably figured he was borrowing it from a friend,” she said. “But now we’re discussing politicians, so we all know how honest they are. When I meet a good one, I’ll let you know.”
On March 15, 1972, three months after Issa allegedly stole Jay Bergey’s car and one month after he left the Army for the first time, Ohio police arrested Issa and his older brother, William, and charged them with stealing a red Maserati from a Cleveland showroom. The judge eventually dismissed the case.
While the Maserati case was pending, Issa went to college. Just before 11 P.M. on Friday, December 1, 1972, two police officers on patrol in the small town of Adrian noticed Issa driving a yellow Volkswagen the wrong way down a one-way street. The police pulled him over, and, as Issa retrieved the car registration, an officer saw something peculiar in the glove compartment. He searched it, and, according to the police report, found a .25-calibre Colt automatic inside a box of ammunition, along with a “military pouch” that contained “44 rounds of ammo and a tear gas gun and two rounds of ammo for it.” Issa was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. The policeman asked why he was armed. “He stated in Ohio you could carry a gun as long as you had a justifiable reason,” the report said. “His justifiable reason was for his car’s protection and his.” Issa pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of possession of an unregistered gun. He paid a small fine and was sentenced to six months’ probation.
The second half of Issa’s Army career appears to have been sterling, and he rose to captain. Wesley Clark, who was one of his superiors, wrote in a 1980 evaluation, “This officer’s performance far exceeded that of any other reserve officer who has worked in the battalion.” He added, “Promote ahead of contemporaries. Unlimited potential.” Shortly before he was discharged, however, Issa was arrested again.
According to court records, on December 28, 1979, William Issa arrived at Smythe European Motors, in San Jose, and offered to sell Darrell’s car, a red 1976 Mercedes sedan. William was carrying an Ohio driver’s license with his brother’s name on it and the dealer gave William a check for sixteen thousand dollars, which he immediately cashed. Soon afterward, Darrell reported the car stolen from the Monterey airport. He later told the police that he had left the title in the trunk.
The brothers had been together in Cleveland for Christmas, and, after Darrell gave a series of conflicting statements about his brother and whether he himself had recently obtained a second driver’s license, the investigator in the case became suspicious that the two men had conspired to fraudulently sell Darrell’s car and then collect the insurance money.
The brothers were indicted for grand theft. Darrell argued that he had no knowledge of William’s activities; William claimed that his brother had authorized him to sell the car, and he produced a document dated a few weeks before the robbery that gave him power of attorney over his brother’s affairs. On February 15th, with the investigation ongoing, Darrell returned to the San Jose dealership and repurchased his car, for seventeen thousand dollars. In August, 1980, the prosecution dropped the case. Darrell insisted that he was a victim, not a criminal. William had produced evidence that he had the legal authority to sell the car, and the injured party was reimbursed.
Five months later, in January, 1981, at an intersection in Cleveland, Issa had further car troubles. He crashed a truck into a 1959 Thunderbird Classic driven by a forty-year-old woman named Juanita Martin. According to court documents, Issa told her that he did not have time to wait for the police and left the scene. Martin ended up in the emergency room the next day with neck and back pain that she said caused “permanent damage.” A month later, she sued Issa for twenty thousand dollars; they settled for an undisclosed amount.
Issa’s early business career was equally tumultuous. He started his car-alarm empire by acquiring the Steal Stopper brand in what was essentially a hostile takeover. A man named Joey B. Adkins owned the company, and Issa loaned him sixty thousand dollars. When Adkins was late on a payment, Issa went to court and foreclosed on the loan. Two days later, Adkins told me, Issa called and said that he wanted Adkins to come visit him at his new office. He gave Adkins the address of Steal Stopper. “I just took your company,” Adkins recalled him saying.
Once in control, Issa allegedly used an unusual method to fire Jack Frantz, an employee. Frantz told the Los Angeles Times that Issa came into his office, placed a box on the table, and opened it to reveal a gun. Issa told the paper, “Shots were never fired. If I asked Jack to leave, then I think I had every right to ask Jack to leave. . . . I don’t recall [having a gun]. I really don’t. I don’t think I ever pulled a gun on anyone in my life.”
Issa was soon suspected of doing something worse: burning down the factory. The initial notion that an electrical socket had caused the fire was challenged. The science of determining whether a fire was caused by arson can be flawed. But a fire-analysis report commissioned by the St. Paul insurance company, and dated October 19, 1982, a month after the incident, concluded that the fire was “incendiary.” The report cited “suspicious burn patterns,” such as “two separate major areas of origin,” and it said, “No accidental source of heating power was located at either of these two major areas of origin.” The manner in which stacks of cardboard boxes burned was inconsistent with an accidental fire. A flammable liquid appeared to have been poured over the boxes. The blue flames seen emanating from the roof were evidence, according to the investigators, of burning carbon monoxide that is produced when an accelerant like gasoline ignites. The black smoke was also a clue. “Such black smoke normally occurs in a fire only when a hydrocarbon is burning,” the report said. When investigators tested burn damage from inside the factory, they found “the same identical mixture of flammable hydrocarbons” in four samples taken from diverse locations.
St. Paul sought out background information on Issa and his companies. Investigators interviewed family members, bank officials, and former employees. They looked into Issa’s court and credit records, mortgage documents, and other personal information.
Joey Adkins, the former owner of Steal Stopper, provided the main evidence against Issa. On the afternoon of September 20, 1982, in a lengthy recorded interview with an insurance investigator, he described a series of suspicious actions by Issa before the fire. Adkins, who still worked for Steal Stopper, said that Issa removed the company’s Apple II computer from the building, including “all hardware, all software, all the instruction books,” and also “the discs for accounts payable, accounts receivable, customer list, everything.” According to Adkins, Issa also transferred a copy of every design used by Steal Stopper from a filing cabinet to a fireproof box. He also said that Issa put in the box some important silk screens used in the production of circuit boards. Insurance officials noted that, less than three weeks before the fire, Issa had increased his insurance from a hundred thousand dollars to four hundred and sixty-two thousand dollars. “Quite frankly,” Adkins told the investigator, “I feel the man set the fire.”
The Ohio state fire marshal never determined the cause of the fire and no one was ever charged with a crime. According to Issa, St. Paul paid Quantum twenty-five thousand dollars, but refused to pay his claim for the Steal Stopper inventory. Issa sued St. Paul for a hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars, and the two parties eventually settled out of court for about twenty thousand dollars.
The insurance company, meanwhile, had found something peculiar about Issa, unrelated to the arson: there was no indication of where his initial capital came from. After interviewing a family member, an investigator reported, “She was unable to advise us as to his financial banking [sic] to become an officer in Quantum Inc.” A second report noted, “We were unable to find the source of his financing for the business ventures he is engaged in at the present time.”
n 2000, two years after losing the Senate primary campaign, Issa easily won a congressional seat in a conservative district near San Diego, where voters seemed unconcerned about the then two-decade-old tales from his youth. In 2003, Issa, who was now worth more than a hundred million dollars, funded the recall of the state’s governor, Gray Davis. It was an ambitious project. Davis, who had been elected to a second term six months earlier, had not committed an impeachable offense; he simply had become unpopular. Issa planned to run for governor and replace Davis, but once again reporters started to look into his past. They took particular interest in the story of his brother stealing his car, and again questioned Issa’s truthfulness. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported that Issa did not win Inc.’s national Entrepreneur of the Year award, as he had suggested. He won a regional prize in San Diego and became one of a few hundred nominees for the national award. Issa said that he hadn’t meant to indicate otherwise.
On August 7, 2003, Issa visited the office of the San Diego County registrar of voters, where he was expected to file the paperwork for a gubernatorial campaign. Facing a scrum of cameras, he announced that he wasn’t running. Instead, he tearfully explained, he had decided to devote his life to finding peace in the Middle East. Because of his Lebanese roots, he had always cared about the issue; now he intended to make it his life’s work. “It’s my desire to see that the recall continues, that Gray Davis is recalled, and that California has a brighter day,” he said. But he also wanted to see “Israel and a Palestinian people living side by side in peace. I won’t choose between the two.” After mocking him for the melodrama, the California press corps moved on to cover Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign, and Issa spent a few quiet years as a congressional backbencher engaged in Middle East issues. He travelled several times to Syria to meet with President Bashar Assad at a time when the Bush Administration was treating the country as the fourth member of the Axis of Evil. He was the only member of Congress to visit Lebanon during the 2006 war with Israel.
On most domestic issues, Issa has been a reliable conservative vote, but he has often found himself at odds with Republicans over foreign policy. His pro-Arab and pro-engagement positions on Middle East politics led a domestic terrorist group, the Jewish Defense League, to target Issa in December, 2001. A whistle-blower in the group foiled a plot to blow up a mosque and Issa’s California office.
Issa has abandoned his longtime dream of holding a statewide position. “The moment that happened was the day after the election and watching Meg Whitman,” Neugebauer, Issa’s chief of staff, told me. In a year of Republican victories across the country, Whitman spent a hundred and forty million dollars of her own money, and still lost the race for governor of California by thirteen points. With the U.S. Senate and the California governorship out of reach, Issa will have to channel his ambitions toward the House leadership. He is in an ideal position to do so. With the White House and the Senate still under Democratic control, the new Republican House has little hope of passing its legislative agenda. Its real power will come from the ability to investigate Obama and feed a press corps that thrives on partisan combat.
ssa has set up what his aides call Issa Enterprises, a highly organized effort to manage his image. Kurt Bardella, the spokesman, who is twenty-seven, and whom Issa calls “my secret weapon,” fiercely screens all interviews. Bardella has a reputation as one of the savviest young spokesmen on Capitol Hill, someone who understands the complicated new media environment.
Over lunch at Bistro Bis, a French restaurant near the Capitol, Bardella was surprisingly open in his disparagement of the media. He said, “Some people in the press, I think, are just lazy as hell. There are times when I pitch a story and they do it word for word. That’s just embarrassing. They’re adjusting to a time that demands less quality and more quantity. And it works to my advantage most of the time, because I think most reporters have liked me packaging things for them. Most people will opt for what’s easier, so they can move on to the next thing. Reporters are measured by how often their stuff gets on Drudge. It’s a bad way to be, but it’s reality.”
He marvelled that the Daily Beast recently reported that Issa was fond of referring to himself in the third person. The reporter who wrote the story, Howard Kurtz, had in fact been interviewing Bardella when he thought he was talking to the congressman on the phone. (Kurtz later said that Bardella didn’t indicate that he wasn’t Issa when they spoke.) “I think anyone who knows me well enough knows I’m far too fond of myself to abdicate my own identity in favor of someone else’s,” Bardella told me.
Bardella later added that he was dealing with a new twist in his relationship with the press. Now that Issa had been elevated to chairman of the Oversight Committee, he said, “reporters e-mail me saying, ‘Hey, I’m writing this story on this thing. Do you think you guys might want to investigate it? If so, if you get some documents, can you give them to me?’ I’m, like, ‘You guys are going to write that we’re the ones wanting to do all the investigating, but you guys are literally the ones trying to egg us on to do that!’ ”
Bardella joined Issa’s staff two years ago, after working for Brian Bilbray, another San Diego congressman, and Olympia Snowe, the moderate senator from Maine. During lunch, he was quick to explain how he had helped transform Issa from an obscure congressman to a fixture of the Washington media-political establishment. Most members of Congress focus mainly on reporters back home. Bardella set out to promote Issa in Washington. “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. Then we can broaden that to something more tangible afterward.”
The task for Issa Enterprises is thus to help Issa make the change from an outsider, grandstanding for talk-radio partisans and conservative bloggers, to a responsible committee chairman. “You’ve got to move from the right to the center,” Issa told me. “If there was a blog with five listeners or viewers, I had to be on it. Now I have to be on fewer media, but more substantive media. What we’re really trying to do is move an agenda, and that requires that we have the support of the American people and at least a big chunk of Democrats.”
More specifically, Issa Enterprises needs to convince élites that Darrell Issa is no Dan Burton, the head of the House Oversight Committee when Bill Clinton was President. Burton, who is still a member of the committee, doggedly pursued right-wing conspiracy theories about Clinton, and will forever be remembered for firing bullets into a pumpkin or a melon—the actual fruit was never determined—while trying to prove that Vince Foster, a Clinton aide who committed suicide, was murdered.
The transformation is a work in progress. In an interview with Rush Limbaugh last year, Issa described Obama as “one of the most corrupt Presidents in modern times.” In December, he told me that what he really meant is that Congress was “corrupting part of government” by passing major spending bills without specifying how the executive branch should use the money. “The stimulus that the Democrats passed, and the TARP that Republicans and Democrats passed, is corrupting to the process,” he said. “This Administration enjoys that corruption. It’s not personal corruption of the President.” More recently, in an interview with CNN, he claimed that he meant “corrupt” in the sense that a computer hard drive can become corrupt: it just stops working well.
During the past year, Issa has spent much of his time on a deeply partisan investigation of ACORN, a national community-organizing group that Republicans alleged had conspired to steal government grants for the benefit of a few of the organization’s leaders. Now, however, Issa speaks more like an accountant than like a prosecutor. “I’m looking for waste, fraud, and abuse in government,” he told me. “Do I have abuse of the power of the President while the President’s in power? Can I make the government be more responsive and more efficient? Those are my major charges.”
It’s easy to imagine, however, that some of Issa’s investigations could end up as acrimonious party struggles, if only because Republicans and Democrats now seem to deal with different sets of facts. Issa seems unconvinced about the science behind climate change, and the investigation that he seemed most passionate about when we spoke involved U.S. government funding for the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit. This is the organization behind the so-called Climategate controversy, in which a batch of e-mails were published, showing, Issa claimed, that there had been fraud involving “the base numbers” underlying our understanding of climate change. However, three separate investigations have cleared the Climate Research Unit of manipulating research, and its work does not form the basis for our understanding of the issue.
Issa has tried to draw a line separating events that he considers appropriate subjects for investigation and those which he deems inappropriate. He has criticized his predecessors for wasting time looking into matters involving the Clintons that predated their arrival at the White House, such as the Whitewater and cattle-futures episodes. “These are items that occurred before the President was elected,” Issa told me. “I would not have viewed them as particularly significant.” He added that issues involving Obama’s past are also off limits, such as “the birther question.” Implicit in this rule is that his past should also be left undisturbed.
“Darrell’s sensitive about fixating too much on his past,” Bardella said. “Obviously, the stuff that happened . . .” His voice trailed off. “We can talk about it, as well we should. It is part of his past, but it does make him somewhat wary.”
n January 8th, Issa was walking the floor of the annual Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, wearing jeans and a black mock turtleneck. He’s not exactly Steve Jobs, but, among a subset of the C.E.S. convention-goers who remember his tenure as chairman of the trade association, he is treated like a hero. As he strolled through what seemed like acres of iPod accessories, a man wearing an Alpine Audio shirt approached and grabbed his hand. “Sorry,” he said, “you don’t know who I am. But, Congressman, thank you very much for everything that you’re doing.”
Minutes later, an elderly man called out, “Excuse me, Darrell? God bless ya. I met you a hundred years ago. I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for everything you do.” Old friends and competitors rushed up to give him a hug and gossip about the car-alarm business. One man shouted that he had seen Issa recently on Fox News, and asked to have a picture taken with him. Another asked when he was going to run for President. “In this industry, we don’t send a lot of people to government,” Issa told me. “So I’m sort of an exception.”
Issa stood with Bardella at the booth for Directed Electronics, where he is still on the board of directors, and talked to some of his former employees. Unlike many other companies, D.E.I. was not using models to sell its newest product, the Viper SmartStart, a mobile-phone app that starts your car. “The quality speaks for itself,” Bardella said. “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, I just want to feed, because they’re really, really thin. I’m, like, ‘God, eat something!’ ”
I walked upstairs with Issa, his wife, Kathy, and Bardella, and we sat down at a small table. Issa wore a brace on his right foot. On Christmas Eve, he smashed the foot into a wall and broke two toes. I wanted to know about the troubles in his past: the gun conviction, the three allegations of car theft, the arson allegation, the allegation that he dismissed an employee while brandishing a gun, and the mysteries about his finances. These are matters he avoids discussing at length with the press, and, as we got into the details, he joked that it might be less painful if I would “just twiddle the toes.”
Issa seemed tired of defending himself from these old stories. He cited the tale of how he allegedly helped protect Nixon, and insisted that a writer had misunderstood an anecdote. Issa failed to correct the story and was subsequently accused of polishing his résumé. He learned a lesson. “If you’ve sent a letter, you can say, ‘Look, in real time I disputed this,’ ” he told me. He noted that after Christmas his Wikipedia page was rewritten to highlight many of the old controversies. “Fixing Wikipedia is a full-time thing when you’ve got people hacking it, or editing it, in a rather slanted way.” He added that in most areas of knowledge Wikipedia works well. “If you’re looking at the history of Picasso’s ‘Scream,’ ” he said. “What’s that famous—‘Ahhhh’?”
“Actually, no, that’s Edvard Munch,” Kathy interjected.
“No, no, it’s one of the other Impressionists,” Issa said, dismissively and erroneously. He added that a description of a painting on Wikipedia continuously improves, “because it doesn’t have enemies. People are just trying to get the truth.” The same is not the case, he said, when it comes to politicians.
On the substantive issues raised by court documents, Issa’s defense in most cases can be summarized in four words: “My brother did it.” Referring to the 1972 conviction for having a gun in his glove compartment, Issa said that he was a freshman in college and was leaving a bar when the incident occurred. He parked his car in an alley and drove out the wrong way. “He pulled me over because the alley was, quote, one way,” Issa said. “Well, I’m new to the town, and I didn’t come in in a way where I ever saw the sign.”
Issa told me that he was driving William’s car and did not know there was a gun inside. “Had I known it was in there, would I have opened the glove box for him to see it?” He added, “There’s some debate about bullets, no bullets, whatever. As far as I know, there weren’t any. As far as I know, it wasn’t loaded.”
Issa seemed annoyed that the incident ever became public. “I agreed to plead to the misdemeanor, and they later expunged it, but expunging turns out not to be worth much,” he said. “This was pre-Internet days, this stuff was not supposed to be discoverable, it’s supposed to be gone. Turns out nothing’s ever really gone, I guess.” William Issa told me that the car and the gun were indeed his. But Darrell Issa’s 2011 account contradicts the 1972 police report, which says that there was a loaded clip and a box of ammo, and that Issa told the police that he was allowed to carry the gun and that he needed to protect his car.
Issa said that all three accusations of automobile theft were false. The incident involving the Maserati was a case of mistaken identity, he said. “By the time I get home in ’72, my brother has been incarcerated,” he said. “Cleveland Heights is a pretty small town. He was arrested and sent off to juvenile detention for a year and now he’s back on the street, and the police stop us. We’re about a thousand feet away, but walking in a direction toward this car. And they put two and two together: ‘Hey, car sitting in the middle of the road and two guys walking toward it and one of them’—Billy had never been arrested for car theft, but he’d been arrested for other thefts. Eventually, they put together the, quote, eyewitness with us and we don’t match and the case is dismissed.”
When I mentioned the car-theft allegation made by Sergeant Bergey, Issa bridled. I reminded him that in 1998 Bergey had told a newspaper he couldn’t believe Issa was running for office. “I can’t believe he ended his career as a medium-rank sergeant with an alcohol problem,” Issa replied. He added, “Did I steal his or anyone’s car? No. Did I have anything to do with it and do I know whether somebody else stole it or he simply left it in a drunken stupor? I’d have to go check. I didn’t.”
Both brothers told me that the 1980 case involving the fraudulent sale of Darrell’s Mercedes was William’s scheme, which he carried out entirely on his own. By then, William had spent three years in state and federal prison for car theft. Darrell, though, admitted that he then tried to cover up for his brother. “Am I going to make a statement incriminating my brother?” he asked. “No. Do you expect me to?” Both Issas said that, to pull off the crime, William obtained an Ohio license with his picture and Darrell’s name on it. As for the title’s being in the trunk, William laughed and said, “He always kept the title stuff in his car, which was kind of stupid.”
Issa told me that he did not set the fire at the Quantum factory in 1982, and he is furious that the story has dogged him. He lashed out at Eric Lichtblau, the New York Times reporter who, in 1998, while working for the Los Angeles Times, first aired allegations from Issa’s former business partner Joey Adkins. Lichtblau, Issa charged, “is a notorious hatchet man.” (“Everything in that story was accurate,” Lichtblau told me in response. “The picture that emerged of his early start in Cleveland was very different from the Horatio Alger story he had adopted.”)
Adkins, both Issa brothers said, is not credible. William told me that Adkins was “a lowlife.” The morning after the fire, Darrell said, Adkins took most of the Steal Stopper merchandise that wasn’t damaged, hauled it away, and set up a rival business across town. (Adkins told me it was his understanding that the inventory would be scrapped, so he took it.) It was that theft of merchandise, Darrell pointed out, that caused the insurance company to deny his claim on the Steal Stopper inventory. There was one more twist. Adkins’s brother, Gary, sold the merchandise back. Issa paid with a check that he cancelled before Gary Adkins could cash it.
Issa seemed unfamiliar with the insurance company’s fire-analysis report concluding that the fire was arson, and said that, as far as he knew, it was officially declared accidental. He blamed the local fire department for letting the fire get out of hand. “If the fire department had done a competent job and turned off the natural-gas line, there would’ve been de-minimis damage,” he said. “They fought the fire for a couple of hours before they realized that the fire is being fed by a gas line from an overhead heater that had ruptured early on in the fire. And if there’s a story, the story is ‘Fire department screws up, small fire becomes devastating fire.’ ” If Issa is right, the natural gas could explain the blue flames that insurance investigators cited as evidence of arson, although it wouldn’t explain the suspected presence of an accelerant.
Both brothers suggested that the real winner was a company called Pied Piper, which sold the bug zappers that Issa’s company was assembling. “The beneficiary of almost all the insurance was a man who was double-insured,” Issa said. He added, “This is not an accusation, but, coincidentally, several years later, while we’re in California, whose factory burns down in downtown Cleveland? Pied Piper.”
When I relayed this conversation to Franklin Porath, one of the owners of Pied Piper—which has since gone out of business—he said that Issa had tried to defraud his company, and that he believes Issa committed arson to cover up the alleged fraud. He added, “Issa is the most evil man I ever met.”
Issa corroborated the gist of what Adkins told the investigator were suspicious actions before the fire, though he said that they proved nothing, and he offered an explanation for each. For example, he said that he increased the insurance, on the advice of his agent, because he was storing the inventory for several companies, and he removed the Apple II computer only because he wanted his lawyer to help him install new accounting software. He was irritated that a series of innocent actions had been twisted into such a serious allegation. “You can always try to make a circumstantial case,” he said.
The fire wasn’t a boon to his early business, he said. It had almost ruined him. “Our employees, in violation of the law, I’m sure, worked for free to get us turned around,” he said. “It was an ugly, ugly time. I think for five or six weeks people were working for free while claiming unemployment because we couldn’t pay them.” As for firing an employee while brandishing a gun, Issa said that he did not have a gun with him that day and that his statement that “shots were never fired” was taken out of context.
At one point, as he reflected on his past, Issa became a little emotional about his brother. “I admired my brother even when he was doing wrong,” he said. “I was always the kid at his ankles. Did he do wrong? Yes. Did he get caught? Yes. Did I ride around in cars with my brother that I had to know in good faith he hadn’t paid for? Yeah. Did I get caught? No. So did I have some youthful time when, although generally doing the right thing, I probably wasn’t as careful and honest and straightforward as I should be? Yeah. Do I regret that? Sure. To be honest, in spite of all the good things that have happened in my life, I regret not finishing high school before going in the Army, I regret a lot of things, where I go, ‘You know, I should’ve been in a hurry to succeed, not in a hurry to go outside the loop.’ And when you get to be fifty-seven it’s a lot easier to say, ‘I should’ve been in less of a hurry.’ But I was always in a hurry.” He pointed to his foot. “I suspect I broke these toes by being in a hurry.”
he question now for Washington is how much of a hurry Issa is in to investigate alleged misdeeds by the Administration. Many people assume that Issa Enterprises doesn’t have a brake, but while Issa can be careless when he speaks off the cuff, mangling facts the way normal people often do in conversation, he seems chastened by all the legal and journalistic investigations of his own complicated past. If one believes his version of events, he has been unfairly accused of several crimes, and has long had to live under a cloud of suspicion. It seems possible that Obama won’t be tormented by his chief prosecutor in the House. Perhaps Issa’s experiences will lead to investigations that are careful and serious, and avoid the warfare that has characterized the Oversight Committee in recent decades.
A few days after we met in Las Vegas, Issa called me. He was concerned about all my questions regarding his early life and didn’t see why they were newsworthy. The conversation was awkward. I told him that there was one more question I wanted him to answer: Where did you get the money for your start in business? The issue had stumped the insurance investigators, and William had, somewhat mysteriously, told me that his brother “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.”
There was a pause on the phone. “That’s sort of an amazing one to ask,” Issa said. He took a deep breath, and then carefully and patiently explained that, before he started at Quantum, he sold a BMW motorcycle and two cars—his Mercedes and his wife’s 1967 Volkswagen Bug. “We liquidated everything we could to raise money,” he said. He added that he also borrowed fifty thousand dollars from family members to make the first loan to Adkins. Issa seemed frustrated and exhausted. “Everyone,” he said, “has a past.” ♦