E-Mail Flap Puts Issa to the Test

Posted March 1, 2011 at 6:50pm

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa may have a bit more damage control to do before he can put this week’s e-mail controversy involving a senior aide behind him.

The California Republican moved quickly to change the headlines. After it was reported Monday that Deputy Communications Director Kurt Bardella inappropriately shared other reporters’ e-mails with a New York Times writer  working on a book, Issa launched an inquiry and fired him. But Republicans and Democrats alike said the imbroglio might not go away immediately and at the very least serves as a distraction from the committee’s efforts to launch effective oversight of the Obama administration.

“There are a million other things we should be talking about,” one senior GOP leadership aide said. “There is no need for distractions when we have real work to be doing.”

“He should be focusing more on work and less on publicity,” the aide added.

“It’s clear he made an error in judgment, and he is no longer with the committee,” Issa told reporters Tuesday. “It’s very clear that he had a mistake in judgment thinking that his cooperating with a book somehow didn’t follow all of the same standards that should have been followed in all cases.”

Issa said the inquiry continues, and that seemed to satisfy some Members. “I believe that is an internal personnel matter that apparently he’s dealt with,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said.

But Rep. Robert Andrews said the incident — despite Issa’s quick response — discredits his chairmanship and Republican leadership.

“When the Congress began, Chairman Issa was put forward as the chief prosecutor for the new majority, and it’s kind of ironic that his first major investigation apparently is of himself,” the New Jersey Democrat said.

“The public assesses people’s credibility on the basis of their own behavior, and it will raise some interesting questions,” he continued.

Aides said the decision to fire Bardella was Issa’s and did not come at the behest of GOP leadership. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has previously told Members that he has little patience for unethical behavior in his Conference.

Issa assumed the Oversight gavel in January after Republicans took control of the House. He immediately announced a series of investigations and put Democrats on notice that he planned to use his position to spotlight the Obama administration.

GOP aides said this week’s controversy is not only a distraction from the floor debate on a bill to repeal a small-business reporting requirement in the health care law, but it also raises broader questions about the majority’s Oversight operation and whether Issa has been given too long of a leash as head of the panel.

One Republican aide said leadership was “absolutely monitoring” the situation, hoping to minimize fallout.

This staffer said there was “broad agreement that the chairman and the committee could have handled the situation far better” had they gotten rid of Bardella sooner. Politico broke the story Monday about the e-mail sharing, and Issa announced Bardella’s firing on Tuesday.

“There’s always the potential concern that it affects reporters’ and aides’ relationships going forward,” the aide said. “One would hope that the actions of one overzealous staffer doesn’t create that, but who is to know?”

This isn’t the first time Bardella has caused a stir. Many Republicans have complained privately that a Jan. 24 New Yorker profile of Issa — in which Bardella was quoted extensively — sent the wrong message for the leader of the party’s top investigative panel.

Bardella, 27, who had worked for Issa for two years, was quoted in the story as saying his job was to raise Issa’s profile in Washington, D.C., and “to make Darrell Issa an actual political figure.”

In the same article, Issa referred to Bardella as his “secret weapon.”

Bardella had been working with New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich since November 2010 on his book on Washington corruption; he had sought permission from his supervisors to participate, but Issa said that e-mail sharing was not raised as part of his involvement.

Issa said Tuesday that there’s no reason to believe Bardella sent internal committee or Congressional documents to Leibovich.

Several Members of the Oversight panel said they want all the facts to come out before judging Issa’s handling of the matter.

Ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said, “I share Chairman Issa’s view that we need to know more.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly, another Democrat on the committee, agreed that more facts are needed, but he said Members must hold themselves to the same standard to which they hold agencies, the federal government and the private sector.

“In fact, I would urge Mr. Issa to subpoena the former spokesperson, and let’s get to the bottom of this,” the Virginian suggested.

But other committee members said Issa appears to have handled the situation: “The way I look at it I am principally concerned with making sure that I am making the right decisions, and once I am batting a thousand, then I’ll start trying to work on other people,” Gowdy said.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who briefly considered but later withdrew his bid for ranking member of the panel this Congress, said he believes Members should move on.

“He fired Mr. Bardella. I don’t know what more we can ask of him,” the Ohio Democrat said. “I think we have work to do around here that actually is going to be a lot more important than that.”