The last time Californians heard much about Congressman Darrell Issa, he was leading the charge to recall Governor Gray Davis.

These days, he’s got a much bigger political mission in mind: thwarting the presidency of Barack Obama.

A Republican representing vast tracts of Riverside and northern San Diego counties, the 57-year-old Issa (pronounced eye·sah), at the moment, is the GOP’s It Man, a onetime back-bencher whose political profile has remarkably soared in his new role as the powerful chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

It’s a perch from which he’s proclaimed his plan to serve as Chief Inquisitor of the Obama Administration, by launching congressional investigations of the White House of a man he’s called “one of the most corrupt Presidents in modern times.” Stung by criticism after he made that flamboyant charge to Rush Limbaugh last fall, Issa has since toned down his rhetoric; he now insists he’s interested primarily in probes focused on public policy and aimed at rooting out waste and inefficiency in government.

Democrats aren’t buying it.

Mindful that it was an aggressively partisan Issa who launched and bankrolled the 2003 state campaign that led to Davis being recalled — his own hopes of replacing the incumbent were swiftly abandoned when Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the fray — veteran Democratic operatives in California launched a fierce, muckraking attack on the Republican last week, raising the political stakes by investigating the investigator.

“As Congressman Issa begins his frivolous investigations, [we] will conduct our own examination of his behavior and prove he lacks credibility as a Congressional investigator,” said Averell “Ace” Smith, who’s spent decades working for prominent Democrats, from Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Kamala Harris to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Jerry Brown.

Darrell Issa

Dubbed “Dr. Death,” Smith has a well-earned reputation in national political circles as a masterful practitioner of the dark arts of campaign opposition research. He’s brought that skill set to “The Third Lantern,” a group newly formed for the singular purpose of assailing and discrediting Issa by exhuming some tawdry episodes from his past.

Like other “independent expenditure” committees, Third Lantern (the name derives from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “Paul Revere’s Ride”) does not have to disclose its sources of funding. Still, it made a national media splash by rolling out its first installment of “The Issa Files,” which featured 148 pages of research and documents relating to the mysterious circumstances surrounding a 1982 arson fire that destroyed one of Issa’s early businesses — just a few weeks after he bought a special, short-term policy doubling his insurance on the company.

The fire is one of a series of unseemly episodes in Issa’s past — others involved stolen cars, concealed weapons, and allegations of fraud — that have cast a shadow over his political career. His self-funded effort to win the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1998, for example, was derailed in part by widespread media reports about sordid aspects of his biography, which also surfaced amid his sponsorship of the Davis recall.

As Issa now strides onto the national political stage, Smith and his partners are disinterring details of his misadventures to ensure that the professional political class in Washington is fully aware of the controversies.

Issa, of course, airily dismisses the re-airing of these matters as a batch of old news and innuendo being peddled by a partisan hit squad. As a practical matter, however, his spin was undercut by the New Yorker, which published an 8,000-word investigative report on his checkered past, weeks before Smith and his gang surfaced; as a political matter, the sheer weight and depth of the extremely tough story, by the highly credible political journalist Ryan Lizza, likely dented Issa’s moral authority as the would-be conscience of the Congress.

“The American people are not interested in this kind of destructive politics-as-usual attack that only serves to advance an agenda of divisiveness and pettiness,” Issa press secretary Kurt Bardella said in response to the Third Lantern campaign.

“It’s beyond hypocritical for the very people embarking on this misguided campaign to launch a McCarthy-esque fishing expedition against Chairman Issa, while refusing to disclose where their funding is coming from,” he added. “At the end of the day, these political consultants will do whatever they’re going to do.”

That much is for sure.

More to come, says Smith: “The Third Lantern will release documents which will shed light on Mr. Issa’s history and demonstrate that he is solely motivated by partisan rancor of the lowest order. Stay tuned while we investigate the reckless investigator and reveal the truths that he is so desperate to hide.”


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