Rep. Darrell Issa fires trusted aide Bardella

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 5:56 PM

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), less than two months into his tenure as one of the most powerful committee chairmen on Capitol Hill, fired a close adviser Tuesday after learning that the aide had been sharing e-mails with an author working on a book about Washington's political culture.

Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, dismissed his deputy communications director, Kurt Bardella, after a review of Bardella's work showed that he had been sending e-mails from other reporters seeking information about Issa's work to the reporter for the New York Times who is writing a book.

"It has become clear that the committee's Deputy Communications Director Kurt Bardella did share reporter e-mail correspondence with New York Times journalist Mark Leibovich for a book project. Though limited, these actions were highly inappropriate, a basic breach of trust with the reporters it was his job to assist, and inconsistent with established communications office policies," Issa said in a prepared statement, less than 24 hours after initially saying he would investigate the matter.

Bardella, 27, had worked for Issa for two years and had become one of his most trusted aides, overseeing what the lawmaker and staffer publicly acknowledged was an aggressive media strategy to gain Issa attention among the capital's most important insiders. The strategy was designed both to increase Issa's profile and to raise concerns in President Obama's administration that, as chairman of the oversight panel, he would be the "new sheriff" in town. The chairman's post has almost limitless subpoena power.

Part of that strategy was to coordinate with Leibovich, a Times reporter writing a book about Washington's insider culture of politics and media. Issa and the top aides on the Oversight committee were aware of Bardella's cooperation in the book, but, according to Issa's Tuesday statement, were not aware that the press aide was directing other reporters' e-mails to Leibovich, a former Washington Post reporter.

"The inappropriate information shared with Mark Leibovich appears to have been limited to Kurt's own correspondence with reporters," Issa said in the statement.

Issa tried to speak with Leibovich Tuesday morning, but the journalist declined to cooperate with the chairman, according to those familiar with the investigation.

Sources familiar with the matter said that the leak involves hundreds of e-mails to Issa's office, many of them mundane and routine inquiries from news organizations seeking information and interviews with the chairman. The sources asked to be anonymous in order to discuss details of a still private investigation.

Bardella has not returned messages via phone or e-mail. After the initial investigation was first reported by Monday evening, he posted a brief note on his Facebook page: "thankful for good friends . . ."

Leibovich declined to comment Tuesday.

The timing of the flare-up is bad for Issa, who has just launched several high-profile investigations, including one into VIP mortgage services provided by Countrywide Financial in the years leading up to the housing market crash.

In particular, the Bardella dismissal comes amid what Issa has previously said was an effort to take his hard-charging image and reshape himself into a government watchdog trying to eliminate waste and fraud from the federal government.

In an unusually explicit interview, Issa told the New Yorker magazine that he had spent his previous two years aggressively courting the online media outlets that cover Congress, including Politico, a four-year-old publication that has highlighted much of Issa's work the past 12 months.

"You've got to move from the right to the center," Issa said in the piece, published six weeks ago. "If there was a blog with five listeners or viewers, I had to be on it. Now I have to be on fewer media, but more substantive media. What we're really trying to do is move an agenda, and that requires that we have the support of the American people and at least a big chunk of Democrats."

Bardella found himself under fire for the New Yorker piece because he explained in far greater detail than usually occurs in Washington's political culture what his job had been in 2009 and 2010 when Republicans were in the minority.

"My goal is very simple," he said. "I'm going to make Darrell Issa an actual political figure. I'm going to focus like a laser beam on the 500 people here who care about this . . . 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."

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