How a Forwarded Email Started a Newspaper War

Rep. Darrell Issa's spokesman, Kurt Bardella, was fired for sharing reporters emails

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A series of stories in Politico about a semingly small incident--a congressional aide sharing two reporters' emails with a third--has gotten the aide fired and launched a war between two newspapers. The aide, once considered a rising star on Capitol Hill, is now out of a job. He didn't do anything illegal, but he did hurt some reporters' feelings.

Politico's editor-in-chief, John F. Harris, is very angry that over the course of four months, Rep. Darrell Issa's spokesman Kurt Bardella shared emails sent by Politico's Mike Allen and colleague Jake Sherman to Mark Leibovich, a New York Times reporter who's working on a book about Washington's "culture of self-love." Harris called the rogue forwarding "egregiously unprofessional under any circumstances," and said Bardella was acting in "bad faith." Issa fired Bardella on Tuesday.

But The New York Times' Michael D. Shear  points out that in 2009, Politico's Ken Vogel made a Freedom of Information Act request for "copies of all correspondence"--emails, notes, letters, voicemail--between 16 news organizations and six cabinet departments. Eventually, the request was narrowed to invitations to social events. A story never came out of the documents. Still, Vogel wanted a lot more info than Bardella ever passed along. Further, in 2008, Politico also mocked an email sent to Hillary Clinton's spokeman by a reporter for The Hill.

So why does Politico suddenly believe in the sanctity of private communication? The slightly cynical response would be that Mike Allen is really important in the D.C. media circle, and Bardella broke the unwritten rules governing the political press. Plus, those emails could be embarrassing.

As National Journal's Marc Ambinder explains, the sharing of such information is how a spokesman and press rep like Bardella does his job, and the way one does it is important. He trades one piece of information for a better piece. "Bardella needed to keep the press in check, but he also needed to keep reporters happy," Ambinder writes. "There is a hierarchy among reporters too, and it's not always meritocratic."

It looks like Bardella violated the hierarchy. Allen is a big deal--he was dubbed "The Man the White House Wakes Up To" by Leibovich himself last year. And he doesn't want those emails to be made public. What could they contain? The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, whose reporting on Bardella's boss uncovered his cooperation with Leibovich, has a guess.

Bardella explained to Lizza the kinds of stuff he'd show Leibovich: inquiries from reporters, discussions with his staff on how to respond. He also shared some reporters' brown-nosing emails begging to speak with Issa. But more damning, Lizza writes, were the emails that Bardella describes as, "Hey, I’m writing this story on this thing. Do you think you guys might want to investigate it? If so, if you get some documents, can you give them to me?” Lizza writes,

[T]hat Bardella accused reporters of offering to collaborate with Issa as he launches what will inevitably be partisan investigations of the Obama Administration seemed jaw-dropping. This is exactly the dysfunctional investigator/reporter dynamic that in the nineteen-nineties fed frenzies over every minor Clinton scandal. ... From what I know of what Bardella shared, the beat reporters who cover Issa and engaged in this kind of game with Bardella will be the ones most embarrassed by the e-mails that Leibovich possesses.

Scalp in hand, Allen scolds Bardella in today's Politico, describing him as a "cocky" and implying he deserved his comeuppance. "Even in Capitol Hill’s sea of self-promotion, Bardella stuck out," Allen writes. "Bardella’s self-bestowed nickname is 'Mini-Me,' a reference to himself as an up-and-coming version of his wealthy boss." (Actually it's a pretty self-deprecating reference to a character in Austin Powers, a midget version of bad guy Dr. Evil who is treated like a pet and sometimes humps things.) Bardella, Allen reports, is keeping a good perspective about the mini-scandal, "recognizing that he might learn one of Washington’s lessons the hard way but optimistic about whatever would come next." Nevertheless, Bardella's future isn't looking too shiny right now: "Fellow aides worry about whether their e-mails were provided to Leibovich, and say they would have a hard time working with Bardella again."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.