10:42 PM PST on Sunday, February 27, 2011

By BEN GOAD
Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – It’s shortly after 9 a.m. on a Tuesday. The day’s first signs of life emerge on Capitol Hill, as staffers trudge to work with newspapers tucked underarm and their eyes glued to smart phones.

But inside the offices that house the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, the Darrell Issa investigation machine is in full swing. Phones are continually ringing. Men and women with huge stacks of reports and thick binders dart in and out of meetings in still-undecorated conference rooms.

Issa, the southwestern Riverside County congressman who leapt ahead of several more senior lawmakers on his way to the chairmanship of the powerful committee, swings around a corner so quickly that his heavily creamed coffee nearly sloshes out of the mug in his hand. Bluetooth in ear, he finishes a conversation and pauses long enough to take a question about the committee’s performance during its first month under his leadership.

“Let me put it this way,” he says, not so carefully. “I’d be out of here faster than Jane Harman if I didn’t think our work was worthwhile.”

The reference to Harman’s abrupt departure from Congress to head a think tank is a loaded one, since Issa, R-Vista, and Harman, D-El Segundo, each ranked among the wealthiest members of Congress in recent years and neither requires a paycheck from the institution.

Issa, 57, says what really motivates him is a chance to use his new position — and the subpoena power that comes with it — to trim government bureaucracy where it is bloated and fix it where it is broken.

In his first few weeks since taking control of the committee, Issa has launched investigations into the impact of federal regulations on businesses, the government’s handling of the so-called Wall Street bailouts, and the protocol used by agencies when they respond to document requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

MORTGAGE ISSUE

Issa also is on the lookout for instances of fraud and abuse. His first subpoena, issued two weeks ago, seeks information about a now-defunct Countrywide Financial Corp. mortgage loan program alleged to have offered sweetheart deals to members of Congress and other high-profile people with the ability to shape policy.

But Issa himself is being watched. His ascension to the chairmanship sparked renewed media interest in his own alleged indiscretions, most of them dating back three decades, and a website dedicated to investigating him at every turn.

His ambitious agenda has won praise from fellow Republicans and business groups grateful for his attack on what they view as burdensome federal regulations. But it also has drawn concern from those who question his methods and motives.

ON THE WEB

Issa team’s ties draw scrutiny

Issa has been at odds repeatedly with his Democratic counterpart on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland. Cummings has criticized Issa for denying committee Democrats a bigger say on which subpoenas are filed; argued that the committee’s hearings fail to include witness testimony from both sides of issues; and said an unbalanced review of federal regulations “puts corporate interests above the health and safety of American families.”

DEMANDING PACE

The break-neck pace at which Issa moves is reflected in his 80-person staff, which includes 15 investigators, several lawyers and a team of communication specialists tasked with arranging interviews and reacting to an endless stream of queries from reporters.

Much of the work takes place in three large suites of offices below the committee’s spacious hearing room, in the basement of an office building across the street from the Capitol.

There, Steve Castor, Issa’s chief investigative counsel, oversees a team with the jurisdiction to probe just about any federal agency.

In the weeks before Issa took the helm of the panel, Democrats questioned whether Issa would use the position to immediately fire off a slew of subpoenas in an assault on the Obama administration. Three subpoenas had been issued as of Friday evening.

“Issuing a subpoena is serious business,” Castor said. “We don’t take it lightly.”

Issa is intimately involved with all of the investigations, said Castor, who marveled at the lawmaker’s curiosity in the details of each probe and his recall of those details weeks after being briefed.

Issa, who made a fortune through ownership of an electronics company, is a technical wiz. It’s an interest that translates to the intricacies of government.

“Darrell wants to make everything work better, whether it’s your cell phone or your bureaucracy,” said press secretary Kurt Bardella, one of Washington’s most prolific issuers of news releases and e-mailed statements on news of the day.

Bardella said he often hears from his boss as early as 6:30 a.m., and he and other staffers frequently work into the night. Issa’s weekends, he said, are almost always spent meeting with constituents in the home district, which includes Temecula, Perris, Lake Elsinore and part of San Diego County.

FREE SPEECH

On the wall of Bardella’s office is a white board listing pending invitations to Issa for television appearances. On a recent afternoon there were 16, from shows and networks across the political spectrum, including both MSNBC and Fox News.

The demand for Issa is predicated not only on his role as chief Republican investigator in a Democratic presidential administration, but also on the widely held observation that he’s a good interview. Unlike many politicians wary to stray from talking points, Issa is known to speak freely.

In 2008, when Issa raised concerns about a bill calling for additional federal funding for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, he described the attack on the World Trade Center as “simply” a plane crashing into a building. His staff later acknowledged that the remarks, which prompted Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York to say he’d like to punch Issa in the nose, were poorly chosen.

Issa’s approach has yielded similar reactions from other leading Democrats. His insistence on being heard during a hearing three years ago touched off a gavel-pounding tirade from then-chairman Henry Waxman, who threatened to have Issa removed from the room.

Last year, Issa recounted being on the receiving end of an obscene gesture from then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel when they crossed paths outside the House gym. An Emanuel spokesman denied it.

UNDER SCRUTINY

Since he took over the chairmanship in January, scrutiny of Issa has intensified. Issa drew questions in recent weeks by seeking input on cumbersome regulations from business groups that contributed to his congressional campaign.

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