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Issa’s Trade Show Visits Blur Congressional, Personal Business

Attendees at the January Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas may have been confused when they ran into Darrell Issa: Were they meeting the California Republican Congressman and new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee? Or were they meeting the board member of a private company Issa founded called DEI Holdings Inc.?

Issa declared he was there as a board member on personal business, and therefore exempt from House ethics rules governing travel provided to Members by outside parties. But his press secretary, standing next to him, declared he was there on official Oversight Committee business, and the Committee paid his way.

Issa approved the travel of two personal office staffers to attend the glitzy gadget event and let the Consumer Electronics Association, the sponsor, pay the tab, all of which was properly reported to the Ethics Committee. Dozens of other Members and staff also accepted the association’s invitation to the event and traveled in their official Congressional capacity. Documents on file with the Ethics Committee indicate that Issa was invited in his official capacity, but he traveled instead as a private businessman.

Before his election to Congress, Issa made millions from a car alarm company he founded called Directed Electronics Inc. and served as chairman of the Consumer Electronics Association, the trade group that puts on the annual show in Las Vegas.

When he came to Washington in 2001, he sold the firm, now known as DEI Holdings, but continues to serve on the board, though his financial disclosure forms indicate that he holds no stock in the company. As of 2010, Issa was Congress’ richest Representative, with a net worth of at least $160 million.

Issa has returned every year to the electronics show, and for several years he traveled as other Members and staff did: by accepting the trip from the trade association as part of his official duties and reporting the trip to the Ethics Committee as a gift.

But after Congress tightened the rules on Congressional travel, Issa began going to the trade show on personal business, as a director of DEI. He told the Hill newspaper in a 2010 video interview that new House ethics rules made it harder for Members of Congress to attend the event. “I’m here on my own dime,” Issa said. “If you are here as a ‘guest of the show,’ you can only be on the ground for less than 24 hours.”

But Issa wasn’t really there on his own dime. According to his 2010 financial disclosure form, his travel to the 2009 show, food and lodging were paid for by Directed Holdings Inc. The form indicates that Issa “Attended Board Meeting.”

In 2010 and 2011, two of Issa’s staff members filed “gift/travel” forms with the Ethics Committee saying their travel was paid for by the association, along with a flock of other House staff and Members. But Issa did not file travel forms, and spokesman Frederick Hill said it was because he traveled as a board member of DEI on personal business.

For this year’s show, Issa was accompanied for part of the trip by his then-spokesman Kurt Bardella, whose $447 travel tab was paid for by the Oversight Committee, according to committee records. The committee report indicates that Bardella was at the show “for official committee business.”

A profile of Issa by Ryan Lizza that ran in the New Yorker in January said, “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.”

Bardella was fired earlier this week for leaking reporters’ e-mails to a New York Times reporter who is working on a book.

Hill said Bardella traveled to Las Vegas specifically to participate in Issa’s interview with Lizza, but that was not the primary purpose of the trip for Issa. The Congressman’s primary purpose was personal — the meeting of the DEI board — Hill added, and “it wouldn’t be appropriate to spend official funds when the primary purpose and majority of the trip” was Issa’s board duties.

Hill said Issa cleared this arrangement with the Ethics Committee. “We explained it to House Ethics, and this was their recommendation.”

The House ethics manual says that House rules prohibit “the use of private funds or in-kind support from outside sources for official activities,” meaning that Issa could not use company money to fly to a Congressional event. But the manual also accepts the possibility of “mixed purpose trips.” In those cases, the Member or staffer “must determine the primary purpose of the trip,” and the source of that primary purpose must pay the airfare and all other expenses of the trip. Both Issa and Bardella appear to have met this requirement.

And if Issa is indeed traveling in his personal capacity, he is not bound by the disclosure requirements that cover official Congressional travel, nor the limits on how many days he can spend on the ground at the sponsor’s expense.

But the trip highlights the thin line between Issa’s corporate and Congressional activities. Roll Call reported earlier this week that Issa has long maintained a website that served as a portal to DEI Holdings, a second family company called Greene Properties and his Congressional office. The website carried a disclaimer that it was paid for by Issa’s campaign, but after Roll Call’s inquiries, the Congressional and campaign links were removed from the site.

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