Rep. Darrell Issa

10:00 PM PDT on Wednesday, June 16, 2010

By BEN GOAD
Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – Love him or hate him, Inland Rep. Darrell Issa has emerged as a national figure during the past 18 months by launching a series of investigations seeking to expose waste, fraud and abuse in the Obama administration.

Though dubious of his findings — and motives — Democrats are beginning to take notice.

As the top Republican on the influential House Oversight Committee, Issa commands a burgeoning staff that has delved into the White House’s job creation claims, the government’s handling of the financial meltdown, and misconduct at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Issa’s role as watchdog, aided by a relentless barrage of news releases, reports and YouTube videos issued by his staff, has brought him a level of exposure enjoyed by few House members — especially Republicans in the congressional minority. He is a fixture on cable news shows, a prolific Twitterer and moves between hearings, interviews and the House floor at a frenetic pace.

Last Friday, Issa was in Louisiana as part of his probe into the Gulf oil leak. On Monday, thanks to his investigation into the purported White House job offer to Senate candidate and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., he delivered the keynote address at the Pennsylvania Republican Party’s summer meetings.

“I think we’ve punched above our weight. We’ve exposed a great deal,” Issa said Tuesday of his tenure as the GOP’s ranking member of the oversight panel. “We’ve made the administration aware that there’s real oversight coming and it’s coming from the minority.”

But Issa has plenty of critics. Democratic operatives and political opponents described Issa’s accusations as politically motivated and largely baseless.

“He doesn’t have a lot to substantiate them,” said Howard Katz, the Democrat vying to unseat Issa in November. “I think his focus in all cases is on Darrell Issa — on his position, his power and his ability to retain his office.”

The White House declined to comment for this story.

emerging voice

Now in his fifth term representing Temecula, Lake Elsinore, Perris and a large chunk of San Diego County, Issa has been a player in state politics for more than a decade. But until last year he was a relative blip on the national radar best known for his wealth (he’s the richest House member) and his decision to bankroll the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis.

That began to change early last year when he took over as the House’s top Republican on the oversight panel. Issa, who often defended the Bush administration as a rank-and-file member of the committee, went on the offensive.

In July, he released a report accusing ACORN, a community-organizing group then receiving taxpayer money, of having an improper Democratic political agenda. He also launched an investigation examining a Countrywide Financial Corp. mortgage program that he said gave sweetheart deals to some lawmakers.

Oversight Committee chairman Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., sets the panel’s agenda, and only he has the power to subpoena documents. Many of Issa’s requests for hearings and information from federal agencies have gone unanswered.

Last week, Issa released a series of documents his staff obtained from the U.S. Coast Guard. The documents, which included Coast Guard logs from the oil leak disaster’s first days, have led to questions about whether the White House knew more about the leak’s potential magnitude than it was telling the public.

Issa also has figured in the Sestak matter, requesting information about a position offered to the lawmaker, allegedly to keep him from running for the seat currently held by Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa. The Obama administration released a memorandum detailing the exchanges involving Sestak and contends that nothing inappropriate transpired.

Issa maintains the offer was at least unethical and at most a violation of the law. He is asking the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to investigate.

Democratic attacks

In a sign that Issa’s crusade has gotten under the skin of Democrats, the national party issued an e-mail last week highlighting Issa’s 1972 arrest on suspicion of auto theft and a 1980 arrest on suspicion of faking the theft of an auto. Though the charges in both cases were dropped, the e-mail was meant as evidence that he should not be the Republican voice questioning ethics.

“If the best they’ve got is things that have been exhaustively reported from decades ago, they’re not going to be successful,” Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella said.

A Democratic National Committee spokesman suggested that Issa’s investigation into the Sestak offer didn’t help Republicans, pointing to polls showing that Sestak went from five points down in the race to three points ahead during the inquiries.

“As the eight-point swing to Sestak since Issa started this show demonstrates, trying to make political hay out of nothing isn’t working,” Frank Benenati said. “The message from voters to Republicans and Issa is clear — you ought to be more concerned about your job prospects than Joe Sestak’s.”

But Issa’s role in the case led to his invitation to address Pennsylvania’s Republicans this week, party spokesman Mike Barley said.

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