WASHINGTON — 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."
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.
"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.
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."
Liberal Democrats and their allies have said Issa and other Republicans have gone too far by targeting regulations involving health and safety. Still, the Obama administration's top official overseeing the president's regulation review, Cass Sunstein, acknowledged at a hearing last week that Issa is having an impact..
"I'm especially grateful to you Mr. Chairman and to the committee as a whole for its constructive and important work on this issue over the past months," Sunstein said. "It's very significant to try to get regulation in a place where it's helpful to the economic recovery."
_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."