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Past Haunts Rep. Issa, Head Of Investigative Panel

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Before we get to the new chairman, what exactly will be the power that he wields as the chairman of this particular committee?

MONTAGNE: You know, it's very interesting. The House rules say this committee may investigate quote, any matter. So literally, Darrell Issa has the power - has subpoena power, and he can subpoena anyone for any reason he wants. Now, obviously, he's bound by politics and the Republican leadership, who will keep him on somewhat of a leash. But it's a very powerful committee.

MONTAGNE: So investigate bad ideas, perhaps, your bad politics, but even bad deeds.

MONTAGNE: It can be anything. It can be a simple - and Chairman Issa has very carefully said that the last election was about spending, and that is his main priority. But he's being very careful these days to make sure that the public does not think that this committee is going to go out on partisan witch hunts. And that is the history of this committee.

MONTAGNE: Yes because in the past, this committee has been used to - at least - go after leaders of the other party.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. I mean, the history - if you think of Washington in the last few decades as just characterized by pure, partisan warfare, this committee has been at the center of some of the biggest battles. Back in the '90s, a congressman named Dan Burton - he really investigated the heck out of the Clinton administration; followed a lot of what were really conspiracy theories, and I think embarrassed himself in the process because he became known for chasing, you know, wild goose hunts. So Issa's very conscious of that history, very conscious of Dan Burton's reputation being sullied by his investigations, and is being very careful not to go down that same road.

MONTAGNE: Your profile of congressman Issa spends a lot of time in his background, his history...

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...going back to when he was in his early 20s...

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...and some of the things that have dogged him. Describe some of that for us.

MONTAGNE: There are basically, that we know of, five incidents.

MONTAGNE: From what years?

MONTAGNE: From 1972 to 1982. There was one concealed weapon charge; there were three incidents involving stolen cars; and there was - the most serious allegation was his former business associates accuse him of burning down a building for the insurance money. Now, these are really serious allegations. They came up first when Darrell Issa ran in the Republican primary for the Senate from California, in 1998. These allegations probably cost him that primary. And this stuff has never gone away. As he said to me - he said, you can always build a circumstantial case.

MONTAGNE: The fire that destroyed his factory, the insurance company concluded it was arson. The Ohio state fire marshal, you write, never determined the cause of the fire. No charges were brought, but this fire back in 1982 - we're talking almost 30 years ago...

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...has haunted him to this day. I am wondering how you think that's affected him.

MONTAGNE: Well, I think the jury is out because he has not started his committee's work yet - or he's just starting it now. I will say this: Given the fact that during about 12 years of his life, he was charged or accused of committing crimes - he was investigated for sometimes weeks; in the case of the arson, that case went on for two years - so you think in that period of his life, being investigated, having to go to court, thinking perhaps that you're going to go to jail if these cases aren't dismissed, I wonder if maybe that has some impact on the care with which he will investigate this administration.

MONTAGNE: As you write, he's put certain things off-limits in terms of President Obama's past.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. Yeah, I mean...

MONTAGNE: Like the birther issue.

MONTAGNE: Well, in the line that he's drawn - and this is sort of interesting, given his own past - is, he wants to look at things that the Obama administration has done since Obama was elected. In other words, nothing personal to Obama before his election. And that's very different than what happened with Bill Clinton.

MONTAGNE: Ryan Lizza's profile of congressman Darrell Issa, titled "Don't Look Back," is in the current New Yorker. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.