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After Stumbling, Issa Poised for a Comeback

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo

For Rep. Darrell Issa, the summer has been much better than the spring.

When he took the helm of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in January, the California Republican brought expectations that his investigations would reach deep into the White House, forcing large document releases and embarrassing disclosures for Democrats.

Instead, Issa stumbled. At his lowest point, he fired his aggressive spokesman, Kurt Bardella, in a flap over email forwarding. "It was the most difficult week I've had in 10 years of working for Mr. Issa," said Frederick Hill, Issa's communications director.

The committee held a series of mundane hearings. Rob Kelner, a partner at Covington & Burlington who guides clients through Congressional investigations, said "it's been a pretty quiet time" for lawyers like him.

But things started to turn around in the summer, with the panel's ongoing examination of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious.

Although significant chunks of the probe were uncovered by the press, starting with a CBS News expose, Issa kept up the drumbeat, hauling Justice Department officials before the committee to demand answers. Late last month, heads started to roll. The DOJ reassigned ATF acting Director Kenneth Melson. Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney for Arizona who oversaw the operation, resigned.

The fallout, as well as several other committee moves, have Issa's allies saying he's back on track.

"I think he's hit his stride now," said ex-Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the former chairman of the committee who is a mentor to Issa.

Issa also brought back the controversial Bardella, a move that poses risks but could pay major rewards.

Issa fired Bardella in March for sharing correspondence between himself and other reporters with New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich, who is writing a book about Washington's media wars.

But Bardella is described as bringing political smarts to the communications shop, as well as energy and a close relationship with his boss.

Issa and Bardella "have had a good relationship," Davis said. "That chemistry between staffer and the Member is very important."

Some people in GOP circles question the move, though, six months after Issa said Bardella's actions were "highly inappropriate" and a "breach of trust."

"I don't understand the decision. People know what happened, and there isn't a lot of trust there. I know I wouldn't want a guy like that on my staff," a House Republican aide said.

On Fast and Furious, the program originally came to the public's attention when CBS News published an investigation in February, relying on the accounts of six ATF agents with knowledge of the program.

The agents told CBS that they were ordered to watch guns escape into criminal networks without any means of tracking them.

Before CBS ran the story, Issa inquired about the program to the Justice Department. In a Feb. 4 letter to Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the DOJ denied the allegations.

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