Image: US Republican Representative Darrell Iss
Tim Sloan  /  AFP - Getty Images
US Republican Representative Darrell Issa of California is on track to become chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee when Republicans take over the House in January, is seen on December 7, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
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updated 9/22/2011 10:56:48 AM ET 2011-09-22T14:56:48

Rep. Darrell Issa is finding himself in the spotlight as a target as well as the Republicans' chief inquisitor in investigations of the Obama administration, which are producing potential GOP campaign issues for 2012.

The California Republican has used his perch atop the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to expose the Justice Department's Operation Fast and Furious, a gun-tracking investigation that went awry, and to question National Labor Relations Board civil charges against the Boeing Co. in a dispute with the Machinists union.

Issa, one of the richest members of Congress with a net worth well over $100 million, acknowledged in an interview that key investigations "are maturing as the campaign season gets going." He said a recent swarm of allegations and negative inferences about him are not unexpected.

"I knew that the deeper I probed into things like Operation Fast and Furious, the more the White House and its allies would throw dirt in an effort to change the conversation away from what our fact-based investigations uncovered," he said. "I know it's not personal. These guys are driven by the fear of what we find and what happens when we tell the public about it."

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Video: Rep. Issa on how to save the US postal service (on this page)

In May, the White House hired Eric Schultz, a former spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, as a spokesman whose portfolio includes keeping tabs on Issa's investigations.

Last week, the liberal American Family Voices filed a complaint with the House Office of Congressional Ethics seeking an investigation to determine if Issa's business interests conflict with his work as a government official.

Issa's spokesman, Frederick Hill, said the complaint has no merit and described it as part of a campaign orchestrated by the White House against his boss.

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"The White House has used an assortment of outside progressive groups in an effort to attack oversight and chairman Issa directly," Hill said. "This is just their latest salvo in an ongoing effort to obstruct oversight."

Schultz, the White House spokesman, said the allegation is not true.

Mike Lux, president of American Family Voices, also said the White House had nothing to do with the group's request for an investigation of Issa. Lux, a veteran of Democratic politics, served on President Barack Obama's transition team, working with liberal groups. He also worked in the White House during Bill Clinton's presidency and on Clinton's 1992 campaign.

"There's no coordination whatsoever between us and the White House and anybody related to Obama," Lux said.

The ethics complaint followed a story last month in The New York Times suggesting that Issa mixed his business interests and his official duties. Citing factual errors, his office asked the Times to retract the story. That didn't happen, but the newspaper ran corrections on three separate days.

Last March, Issa fired his deputy communications director, Kurt Bardella, after learning that Bardella had given a Times journalist Bardella's email exchanges with other reporters. Issa rehired Bardella last month. Bardella's new job does not involve contact with the media.

Issa's committee has held about 90 hearings this year, many of them on topics that probably won't be campaign issues: fixing a near-broke U.S. Postal Service, cybersecurity, recovery from the Gulf Coast oil disaster, open access to government information, freedom of information abuses and state and municipal debt.

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But he has focused the bulk of the committee's investigative resources in high-profile issues that could provide fodder for the 2012 election campaign. Among them:

—Justice Department mistakes in Operation Fast and Furious, a now-abandoned program that may be connected to the death of a Border Patrol officer. The operation allowed guns bought illegally in the United States to go through middlemen to Mexican drug cartels in hopes of following the weapons and arresting major traffickers. Officer Brian Terry was killed last Dec. 14 in an Arizona firefight with suspected illegal immigrants, and two semi-automatic rifles found near the scene had serial numbers matching guns tracked under Fast and Furious. On Aug. 30, the Justice Department reassigned the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The U.S. attorney in Phoenix stepped down. A prosecutor who worked on the Phoenix-based operation was reassigned to civil cases.

—Government regulations that Republicans say discourage companies from creating new jobs. Several House committees have taken up that mantle, but Issa went so far as to solicit recommendations from businesses on what regulations they want eliminated. Republicans claim credit for Obama administration plans to roll back hundreds of existing or pending regulations, including on smog, a major contributor to several lung ailments. "The success is President Obama has embraced it," Issa said. "We won the argument."

—The right of companies to locate facilities where they choose. Issa subpoenaed documents from the NLRB's civil case against Boeing after the board's general counsel charged the company with violating labor law by opening a production line for its new Dreamliner aircraft in right-to-work South Carolina. The NLRB contends Boeing is retaliating against Boeing workers in Washington state for past Machinists' strikes and wants the company to return the work to Washington. The case is still pending before an administrative law judge. The House, meanwhile, has voted to weaken the NLRB's enforcement power in unfair labor practice cases.

Issa also has demanded documents on Democratic fundraising from the White House, the Democratic National Committee and the Obama re-election campaign, an approach used by the same committee when it was under an earlier Republican chairman to expose political fundraising abuses during the Clinton administration. The hearings back then, however, are remembered more for their partisanship than their disclosures.

As the committee's chairman, Issa can issue subpoenas without the consent of Democrats. He's approved 19 of them so far.

The panel's senior Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, has peppered Issa with a growing list of topics he wants the panel to investigate: job creation, rebuilding infrastructure such as roads and bridges, the mortgage foreclosure crisis and corporate profits.

Cummings said he wanted an investigation — with subpoenas — of mortgage servicing companies that may have acted illegally in foreclosing homes.

"We want to find out more about what they were doing," Cummings said in an interview. "I asked if he would subpoena these folks. He waited for six months and, after we went to the media, he finally agreed to join us in asking questions. There were no subpoenas. If the shoe was on the other foot, subpoenas would have been issued."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Rep. Issa on how to save the US postal service

  1. Closed captioning of: Rep. Issa on how to save the US postal service

    >>> chairman of the house committee on overnight on government reform, representative darrell issa .

    >> he wants to save the post office .

    >> he does want to save the post office . i want to ask him the $64,000 question . the president is delivering his jobs bill to capitol hill today. how do you create jobs in america and what has the president sent to capitol hill today that you can agree with?

    >> certainly i think that some of the efforts to try to do what we didn't do in the stimulus, which is to deal with some of our crumbling infrastructure, needs to be looked at seriously. i think on a bigger note, government needs to realize it's been part of the problem. as you said, i'm concerned about the post office . it's going to lose $10 billion. a lot of think tanks are saying, okay, we'll just do a bailout. we'll just fudge the figures. and we can't really keep doing that. this is an organization that can be profitable, that can meet all of its responsibilities, but it's going to right size its workforce if it's going to do it. we're not talking about pay cuts, but we are talking about people being retired that are no longer needed because you and i are e-mailing far more than paper mailing.

    >> so how many people are you going to push out and what impact is that going to have for me to be able to mail a letter to anybody i want to mail a letter to in america?

    >> well, universal service is part of the mandate, and we think that's extremely important, that it be maintained. but there are over 140, 150,000 postal workers who are fully eligible for retirement. you add those who will retire over the next several years, you can get the 200,000 or so off the payroll without having to do punitive measures. more importantly, we have a responsibility. the post office , joe, since you were here, has a mandate to be self-sufficient in all senses. including it has to pay into its own retirement, something that they'd like to redo the figures, but the fact is you and i both know that if you redo it with a federal backstop, you and i will be paying for it the way we paid for so many others, including railroad retirement and so on.

    >> pulitzer prize winner john meachem has a question.

    >> congressman, i suspect there's an argument among some folks about just privatize the whole thing. is that part of the conversation at all?

    >> well, the post office already is a gse, so to speak, a government sponsored enterprise , but it's one that has a mandate that says be self-sufficient, meet your own responsibilities, and we'll let you have different formulas than the rest of the government. they have a different formula for their health care and so on. the important thing, though, is they have gone the wrong way. they have gone from having no debt to $15.5 billion in debt. that tells us as a businessman that no matter what they say, they have more than a small cash flow problem. they have declining revenues and they haven't rationalized the hard and soft assets. hard assets being, obviously, post offices . but the soft assets, which is 80% of their costs, are human beings . if you've got too many human beings , you'll build in inefficiency, you'll use labor poorly and that's what's been happening and it's why we have to get this right. it's why the postmaster is asking for various authorities, including one that would allow him to let people go if he closes a post office . we think that the more proactive thing to do is to find ways to encourage people to retire who are well past retirement age and fully vested.

    >> is to some extent the postal service unions the new teachers unions?

    >> well, the postal service unions are diverse. look at the rural letter carriers , they already have a contract. basically is volume goes down, they lose people. they have a whole process of, if you will, piecework, while some of the other unions have no layoff, no reductions and volume has been shrinking. so i think you have to deal with those individually. and that's for the postmaster to do. what we're looking at doing is giving the authority with a mandate to get to break even or a profit to the postmaster and his governing board. that's what our bill does. it's why we want ours rather than a bailout. it's why most of the major newspapers that have yet spoken have spoken in favor of this bill, because it actually gets the post office back on the right track without any real loss of service. the service you expect, whether you're in new york city or on an island far in the north of alaska.

    >> congressman, it's willie gei geist. i want to ask you more broadly about jobs. you listened to the president's speech last thursday night.

    >> i did.

    >> you said you were frustrated because you said you thought it sounded more like a second stimulus than a new approach. was there something in there, a big idea that will affect actual change that you saw perhaps you could agree with the president and found some common ground with him?

    >> well, there were a couple of areas and one of them is slightly off of the main subject but i'll bring it up. he talked social security in the sense of us coming up with a may to amend it, don't end it, if you will, realizing that social security is money in, money out, and we should be acting to make sure that it's solvent well into the future. so i thought that was a very non-partisan sort of outreach that he made within the speech. there are tougher issues. whether or not the federal government borrows money from overseas sources to keep teachers in xyz state on the payroll seems to be stimulus too. it seems to be something that the state has to decide what the right number of teachers are and not have us borrow money from overseas to keep $30 billion worth of money to try to aid the states. we did that once, it's time for us to say states have to step up to the plate. that's a good example where i don't think that belongs in this stimulus bill. i don't think we should maintain government workers with borrowed money.

    >> all right. congressman darrell issa , it's always good to see you. thank you very much. good luck with everything.

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