Issa Fires Spokesman

Updated at 2:19 p.m. March 1

Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has fired his spokesman for sharing e-mails from reporters with The New York Times' Mark Leibovich.

Politico first reported yesterday that spokesman Kurt Bardella had shared e-mails and that Issa had launched an investigation to determine if Bardella had done anything inappropriate.

Issa released a statement this afternoon announcing that Bardella had been fired:

While our review of allegations raised by Politico is not yet complete, 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.  As a consequence, his employment has been terminated. ...

In November 2010, Kurt did seek permission from his supervisors to participate in a book project with Mr. Leibovich.  His request was granted, but nothing that he described to his supervisors ever included the indication, intent, or possibility that he would be sharing reporter e-mail correspondence with Leibovich for his book.  Kurt's supervisors, including the committee's Director of Communications Frederick Hill have told me that they did not learn about what Kurt was doing with reporter correspondence until the committee was first contacted by Politico last Friday evening.  I have not found or heard anything, including Kurt's own account, which contradicts these explanations.

In explaining his intentions in participating in Mark Leibovich's book, Kurt has told me he saw this as an opportunity to contribute a narrative about what a press secretary does on Capitol Hill and was not about offering salacious details designed to settle scores or embarrass anyone.   My review of materials thus far supports that characterization.

I intend to finish our review and rebuild any broken trust with the journalists who cover the important work of our committee.

Bardella didn't share any committee documents, Issa said -- just reporter e-mails.

He did not respond to a text message asking for comment.

Last month, Bardella rankled reporters and fellow Hill staffers alike by openly mocking the press as lazy, bragging that reporters publish essentially whatever story he desires in comments published by The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza in his big Jan. 24 profile of Issa:

Issa has set up what his aides call Issa Enterprises, a highly organized effort to manage his image. Kurt Bardella, the spokesman, who is twenty-seven, and whom Issa calls "my secret weapon," fiercely screens all interviews. Bardella has a reputation as one of the savviest young spokesmen on Capitol Hill, someone who understands the complicated new media environment.

Over lunch at Bistro Bis, a French restaurant near the Capitol, Bardella was surprisingly open in his disparagement of the media. He said, "Some people in the press, I think, are just lazy as hell. There are times when I pitch a story and they do it word for word. That's just embarrassing. They're adjusting to a time that demands less quality and more quantity. And it works to my advantage most of the time, because I think most reporters have liked me packaging things for them. Most people will opt for what's easier, so they can move on to the next thing. Reporters are measured by how often their stuff gets on Drudge. It's a bad way to be, but it's reality."

He marvelled that the Daily Beast recently reported that Issa was fond of referring to himself in the third person. The reporter who wrote the story, Howard Kurtz, had in fact been interviewing Bardella when he thought he was talking to the congressman on the phone. (Kurtz later said that Bardella didn't indicate that he wasn't Issa when they spoke.) "I think anyone who knows me well enough knows I'm far too fond of myself to abdicate my own identity in favor of someone else's," Bardella told me.

There are a few more relevant paragraphs on this page of Lizza's profile, though the whole thing is worth a read anyway.

The New Yorker piece has done a lot to shape what people think of Bardella. After it came out, a couple Hill friends mentioned to me, unsolicited, that they thought Kurt came off as sleazy, or at least cocky. Which he pretty much did. Not that the media industry, in its present state, is above reproach.

Bardella's downfall was precipitated, in part, by the throat-clearing of Politico Editor-in-Chief John F. Harris, who actually wrote a letter to Issa after learning of Bardella's e-mail leaks:

The practice of sharing reporter e-mails with another journalist on a clandestine basis would be egregiously unprofessional under any circumstances... As the editor-in-chief of POLITICO, my concern is heightened by information suggesting that POLITICO journalists may have had their reporting compromised by this activity.

Jack Shafer, writing at Slate, thinks this is ridiculous:

As for Harris' expectation that communications from reporters will be "held confidential," well, I feel another lung coming up. Although I hope flacks will keep confidential my inquiries to them and their bosses, never in my journalistic career have I believed that a flack would keep his mouth zipped. Flacks and reporters are in the business of distributing information, not sequestering it. They move information like currency traders! They're blabbermouths! This is one reason why reporting on the press is so easy, why the freshest journalistic recruit can start reporting on the press with almost no experience: Reporters love to give up their secrets and the secrets of others. Why? Because that's what they're trained to do! Flacks are almost as loose-mouthed.

Bardella and I started working in Washington basically around the same time. I've dealt with him sporadically since 2007, as his career took a curious journey from the office of conservative California Republican and immigration hardliner Rep. Brian Bilbray, to that of consummate Senate moderate Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and eventually to the house of Issa.

Kurt has always struck me as basically a good dude, if ambitious. He's probably a good person for Leibovich to be talking to about Hill culture. (Capitol Hill is a very ambitious place.) He's risen quickly and skipped around to a seemingly random assortment of Capitol Hill offices. It's strange, to say the least, to see a spokesman become a national political story. But that's what's happened, and Kurt's already intriguing career just got a bit crazier.