Hopelessly hardcore California political junkies will recall the travail of the late Democratic Assemblyman Carmen Perino, who once suffered the indignity of witnessing his campaign manager’s arrest in a notorious murder-for-hire case in Stockton.
Reacting to the news of his key adviser being taken into custody in connection with a contract killing, Perino famously commented: “What he does on his own time is his own business.”
His off-the-cuff, see-no-evil comment came to mind this week, as Calbuzz mulled the matter of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Unindicted, another cagey pol whose public career bears the stain of private scandal.
At the moment, Issa is the GOP’s It-Man, an erstwhile comic figure and back-bencher whose profile has remarkably and suddenly soared in his new role as the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
It’s a perch from which he’s proclaimed his plan to serve as Chief Inquisitor of the Obama Administration, launching at his whim investigations of what he told Rush Limbaugh is “one of the most corrupt Presidents in modern times.” And, by extension, to launch his own bid to be treated by the Beltway’s mediaocracy as a Serious Person to be reckoned with, to hear Kurt Bardella, his peach-fuzzed flack, tell it to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza:
“My goal is very simple,” (Bardella) 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.”
Such a modest young man.
Alas for the boss of the unfortunate Bardella, however, Issa’s ambitious self-reinvention and reclamation project faces a considerable political challenge, at least in his home state: overcoming his own biography.
From his expensive, but spectacularly failed, 1998 bid for the U.S. Senate to his short-lived 2003 pursuit of the governorship (after successfully bankrolling the recall of Gray Davis), the public memory of Issa in California bristles with words like “arrest,” “indictment,” “arson,” “concealed weapons” and “stolen cars.”
We admit that we’re hopelessly old-school about this kind of thing. Still, we can’t help but wonder at the wisdom of congressional Republicans investing their party’s mantle of moral authority in a guy who took out a special, short-term, ginned-up fire insurance policy for his business, which mysteriously was burned down by a mysterious arsonist just a few mysterious weeks after.
Truth be told, Calbuzz has spent the last few, entertaining hours chuckling our way through the exhaustively and impeccably researched, 148 original source pages of “The Issa Files,” which documents in excruciating detail the evidence surrounding the 1982 fire that destroyed Issa’s Maple Heights, Ohio based (Go Mustangs!) company, the ashes from which arose his subsequent zillion dollar success in the car burglar alarm business.
As every schoolboy knows by now, the Issa volume was produced by a newly minted independent expenditure outfit called “Third Lantern” (see Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth), wrangled by Ace Smith, the redoubtable prince of the dark arts of campaign oppo research.
“As Congressman Issa begins his frivolous investigations, The Third Lantern will conduct our own examination of Mr. Issa’s behavior and prove he lacks credibility as a Congressional investigator,” our old friend Ace opined, in releasing the material. “The Third Lantern will release documents which will shed light on Mr. Issa’s history and demonstrate that he is solely motivated by partisan rancor of the lowest order. Stay tuned while we investigate the reckless investigator and reveal the truths that he is so desperate to hide. “
As a politician, Issa has been trying for at least 15 years to escape the acrid stench of smoke and circumstance that links him to the episode. Astonishingly, he claimed to Lizza that he was shocked – shocked! – to hear tell that authorities in the Buckeye State considered the blaze to be arson:
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.
Ah, not so much.
Page 18: Anonymous call received by local police or fire department sometime soon after fire: “Unidentified caller said was deliberately set.”
Page 41: Local official reports that member of the Arson Bureau of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, says “his preliminary findings indicate arson,” and that another investigator “indicated possible arson because of low burn patterns.”
Page 45: Investigator relates conversation with insurance agent noting that Issa had just increased amount on his policy: “our Ins’d and his Ins’d increased their insurance coverage only 1 week before the fire.”
pp 47-8: Summary of the Maple Heights fire chief’s suspicions about the fire, including “All areas of (the building) was under automatic sprinkler grid except small area where fire originated.”
pp. 92-94: Fire Analysis concluded that “fire was of incendiary origin” because of “suspicious burn patterns,” and because “no accidental source of heating power was located at either of these two major areas of origin.” Blue flames and heavy smoke both indicated presence of hydrocarbon accelerant.
Page 107: Insurance form shows that Issa increased insurance for the period August 19-September 18, 1982; the fire broke out in the early morning hours of September 7, 1982. The special policy covers 80% of loss.
As the New Yorker piece duly notes, much of the substance, if not the granular detail, of the ethical cloud that trails behind the Grand Inquisitor was brought to light by reporters like Lance Williams and Eric Lichtblau during Issa’s failed bids for statewide office in 1998 and 2003.
“Issa seemed tired of defending himself from these old stories,” Lizza reports.
We just bet he did.