The ‘overlap’ among Darrell Issa’s interests

Earlier this year, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, insisted that President Obama is “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.” He didn’t even try to defend the absurd claim, and looked pretty ridiculous making it.

What may not have been fully appreciated at the time was the extent to which Issa was engaged in projection.

Looking back at Issa’s past, we see a politician who appears to have spent a fair amount of his adult life as an alleged criminal, with one run-in with the law after another, including arrests, indictments, and civil suits.

And looking at Issa’s present, we see a politician — whose power includes leading a committee committed to rooting out government corruption — with a disturbing amount of “overlap” between his public responsibilities and private enterprises. As the NYT‘s Eric Lichtblau reports today, Issa routinely blurs the line between federal funding and the congressman’s “growing financial empire.”

Most wealthy members of Congress push their financial activities to the side, with many even placing them in blind trusts to avoid appearances of conflicts of interest. But Mr. Issa, one of Washington’s richest lawmakers, may be alone in the hands-on role he has played in overseeing a remarkable array of outside business interests since his election in 2000.

Even as he has built a reputation as a forceful Congressional advocate for business, Mr. Issa has bought up office buildings, split a holding company into separate multibillion-dollar businesses, started an insurance company, traded hundreds of millions of dollars in securities, invested in overseas funds, retained an interest in his auto-alarm company and built up a family foundation.

As his private wealth and public power have grown, so too has the overlap between his private and business lives, with at least some of the congressman’s government actions helping to make a rich man even richer and raising the potential for conflicts.

The whole piece is well worth checking out — it’s as much an indictment as an article — to appreciate the scope of the allegations. Ultimately, though, what we see is a lawmaker whose public and private interests are intertwined in ways we just don’t find very often.

The government funding Issa seeks for his district, at first blush, wouldn’t even be especially interesting. A congressman lining up public-works investments for his constituents seems vaguely hypocritical for a far-right Republican who claims to hate government spending, but that’s routine enough to be uninteresting.

With Issa, however, these spending measures take on a whole new level of significance given that the investments happen to also boost his own considerable wealth. When he pushed for a thoroughfare earmark, Issa also coincidentally improved the property value for one of his business ventures. When he pushes for looser regulatory measures, Issa is also making matters easier for his own private-sector enterprises.

It is sometimes difficult, Lichtblau noted, “to separate the business of Congress from the business of Darrell Issa.” Congress has seen plenty of wealthy lawmakers with extensive business interests, but those members nearly always “lower their business profiles considerably and limit their active dealings to avoid potential conflicts of interest.”

Issa has done largely the opposite.

That House Republican leaders tapped this guy to be chairman of the House Oversight Committee is among the most laughable decisions Boehner & Co. have made this year — and given what we’ve seen in 2011, that’s no small feat.