WATCHDOG: An expert says it’s not unusual for staffers to be close to subjects being examined.
10:35 PM PST on Sunday, February 27, 2011
By BROOKE WILLIAMS and MATT PEARCE
WASHINGTON – First as ranking minority member and now as chairman of one of the most powerful watchdog committees in Congress, Inland Rep. Darrell Issa has built a team that includes staff members with close connections to industries that could benefit from his investigations.
Issa, R-Vista, took control of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last month, and asked companies, nonprofit organizations and industry associations for guidance on federal regulations. The committee has broad powers to subpoena and investigate government and industry.
His committee staff has issued findings sympathetic to industries bent on softening or eliminating certain regulations. A preliminary report this month, for example, focused largely on Environmental Protection Agency standards and relied heavily on input from industry.
Some on Issa’s team know the territory from the inside.
Several have ties to billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, who have made much of their fortune in oil and chemical businesses and have a reputation as staunch small-government conservatives. Their influence through campaign contributions, lobbying and nonprofit groups — such as Americans for Prosperity, an activist organization with connections to the tea party movement — is legendary and has become more high profile since the shift in power in the House last November.
One oversight staffer listed as committee counsel is the son of a lobbyist pushing for regulatory changes on behalf of about two dozen big corporations. At least four other staffers once lobbied Congress for companies and industry associations.
Another counsel worked for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which Issa recently asked for input on government regulations.
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Gary Bass, a regulatory expert who has monitored government transparency and spending for nearly three decades as founder of the nonprofit OMB Watch, said it’s business as usual to see committee staffers, close to subjects in their crosshairs — no matter the political party in charge.
But Bass said it’s concerning that this staff has connections to those very industries Issa asked for input.
“What you’re going to see are regulations that are tilted in favor of those interests,” he said.
Frederick Hill, spokesman for Issa and the oversight committee, declined to answer questions about connections to lobbying and Koch.
“I only have a short comment for you on this subject,” Hill wrote in an e-mail. “The Committee makes all hiring decisions based on the ability of individuals to help the committee do its job.”
Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that analyzes campaign finance and lobbying data, called for openness. “If there is even a whiff of conflict of interest, it’s important for them to be transparent and upfront about any interests that the committee or its staffers might have,” he said.
During the past five weeks, the Watchdog Institute, an independent nonprofit reporting center based at San Diego State University, examined a list of 66 Republican staff members working for the committee as of January. Their work experience was viewed in light of Issa’s high-profile investigative agenda.
The minority members of the oversight committee, who lack the majority’s subpoena power, have not announced an agenda and largely have reacted to Issa’s actions. The Committee on House Administration released a list of more than 50 minority staffers on Feb. 22. Many are longtime Hill staffers; some are former lobbyists.
The Institute’s examination of the majority list showed many veteran Hill employees who had been with the committee prior to Issa’s leadership. In most cases, the Institute did not identify connections to companies or industries with a stake in oversight investigations.
However, of those hired after Issa took over as ranking Republican at the start of 2009, one person completed a Koch Associate Program with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and coordinated a regulatory studies program at the Mercatus Center, a think tank co-founded by a Koch Industries executive and heavily funded by Koch’s foundation.
Another, Republican counsel Daniel Epstein was at the Koch foundation and worked “together with Koch Industries Inc.’s assistant general counsel” before joining the committee, according to an interview with The Hill, a Washington, D.C.-based publication.
At least three more oversight staffers have ties to the Mercatus Center, which counts two Koch Industries executives on its board of directors, including Charles Koch.
Catherine Behan, spokeswoman for Mercatus, defended its independence.
“We don’t do directed research,” she said. “No one comes to us and says ‘we want to do a study on X.’ ”
In the past three years, Koch companies reported spending about $40.5 million lobbying on behalf of energy and manufacturing interests. The companies lobbied significantly on Environmental Protection Agency regulations — which oversight committee staffers scrutinized in a recent report and were the focus of many industry responses to Issa’s solicitations for guidance on regulations.
A Koch Industries spokeswoman declined to be interviewed.
Koch Industries does not appear among the more than 150 letters Issa sent on his hunt for onerous government regulations, but it lobbied against some of the same laws many responses objected to.
Koch Industries began contributing to Issa’s campaigns in 2008, and has given him at least $12,500.
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