Past Haunts Rep. Issa, Head Of Investigative Panel

In the past, Rep. Darrell Issa has been accused of several crimes, including car theft and arson. Issa is now chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which means he can initiate investigations of federal programs, and the alleged misdeeds of the Obama administration. Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker talks to Renee Montagne about how Issa may pursue investigations, given his own troubles.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the ways Republicans could make life more difficult for the president right now is by investigating the policies of the administration. And the man in a position to do that is Darrell Issa. The California congressman is the new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

He once called Mr. Obama quote, the most corrupt president in modern times - though he's since backed off that comment. Ryan Lizza profiled Darrell Issa in this week's New Yorker, starting with his early days in Cleveland, and his business in car alarms that made him millions.

Good morning.

Mr. RYAN LIZZA (Political Writer, The New Yorker Magazine): Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Before we get to the new chairman, what exactly will be the power that he wields as the chairman of this particular committee?

Mr. LIZZA: You know, it's very interesting. The House rules say this committee may investigate quote, any matter. So literally, Darrell Issa has the power has subpoena power, and he can subpoena anyone for any reason he wants. Now, obviously, he's bound by politics and the Republican leadership, who will keep him on somewhat of a leash. But it's a very powerful committee.

MONTAGNE: So investigate bad ideas, perhaps, your bad politics, but even bad deeds.

Mr. LIZZA: It can be anything. It can be a simple and Chairman Issa has very carefully said that the last election was about spending, and that is his main priority. But he's being very careful these days to make sure that the public does not think that this committee is going to go out on partisan witch hunts. And that is the history of this committee.

MONTAGNE: Yes because in the past, this committee has been used to - at least -go after leaders of the other party.

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. I mean, the history if you think of Washington in the last few decades as just characterized by pure, partisan warfare, this committee has been at the center of some of the biggest battles. Back in the '90s, a congressman named Dan Burton - he really investigated the heck out of the Clinton administration; followed a lot of what were really conspiracy theories, and I think embarrassed himself in the process because he became known for chasing, you know, wild goose hunts. So Issa's very conscious of that history, very conscious of Dan Burton's reputation being sullied by his investigations, and is being very careful not to go down that same road.

MONTAGNE: Your profile of congressman Issa spends a lot of time in his background, his history...

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...going back to when he was in his early 20s...

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...and some of the things that have dogged him. Describe some of that for us.

Mr. LIZZA: There are basically, that we know of, five incidents.

MONTAGNE: From what years?

Mr. LIZZA: From 1972 to 1982. There was one concealed weapon charge; there were three incidents involving stolen cars; and there was - the most serious allegation was his former business associates accuse him of burning down a building for the insurance money. Now, these are really serious allegations. They came up first when Darrell Issa ran in the Republican primary for the Senate from California, in 1998. These allegations probably cost him that primary. And this stuff has never gone away. As he said to me - he said, you can always build a circumstantial case.

MONTAGNE: The fire that destroyed his factory, the insurance company concluded it was arson. The Ohio state fire marshal, you write, never determined the cause of the fire. No charges were brought, but this fire back in 1982 - we're talking almost 30 years ago...

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...has haunted him to this day. I am wondering how you think that's affected him.

Mr. LIZZA: Well, I think the jury is out because he has not started his committee's work yet - or he's just starting it now. I will say this: Given the fact that during about 12 years of his life, he was charged or accused of committing crimes - he was investigated for sometimes weeks; in the case of the arson, that case went on for two years - so you think in that period of his life, being investigated, having to go to court, thinking perhaps that you're going to go to jail if these cases aren't dismissed, I wonder if maybe that has some impact on the care with which he will investigate this administration.

MONTAGNE: As you write, he's put certain things off-limits in terms of President Obama's past.

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. Yeah, I mean...

MONTAGNE: Like the birther issue.

Mr. LIZZA: Well, in the line that he's drawn - and this is sort of interesting, given his own past - is, he wants to look at things that the Obama administration has done since Obama was elected. In other words, nothing personal to Obama before his election. And that's very different than what happened with Bill Clinton.

MONTAGNE: Ryan Lizza's profile of congressman Darrell Issa, titled "Don't Look Back," is in the current New Yorker.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.