The increasingly bizarre world at the confluence of media and politics in Washington took a decidedly odd turn today when House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa announced the firing of his deputy communications director following reports he had improperly shared e-mails from other journalists with a New York Times reporter.
In a statement, Issa said he has dismissed Kurt Bardella from his job after a review of complaints -- a review not yet complete, he says -- raised by Politico that Bardella had improperly shared e-mails from other journalists with Times reporter 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,” Issa said.
“I intend to finish our review and rebuild any broken trust with the journalists who cover the important work of our committee," he added.
Leibovich is writing a book about Washington’s news culture, including the influential role of the media.
In summary, the investigative arm of the U.S. House of Representatives, a committee charged with making sure that taxpayer money is properly spent, has been forced to investigate, and dismiss, a press aide for how he handled his communications with the press in his dealings with the author of a book about how politicians deal with the press. Beware the rabbit hole.
In fact, within hours of Bardella’s firing, the Times appeared to fire back on Tuesday night by publishing an item revealing that Ken Vogel, a Politico reporter, had himself in 2009 made a broad Freedom of Information Act request to at least a half-dozen cabinet departments for all government communications with reporters or editors of 16 news organizations.
The Times reported that in an interview about Vogel's FOIA request on Tuesday, Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris said there was a difference between a routine request for correspondence under FOIA and an arrangement in which e-mails were passed on immediately to another reporter.
Along with costing Bardella his job, the matter has the potential to hamstring Issa, an especially media-savvy lawmaker, who has used the committee to boost his own profile, mostly in the media. Already, there are questions about how much Issa knew of Bardella’s activities, and whether those concerns may affect his ability to chair the committee. Asked to comment today before Bardella's firing was announced, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he had not talked to Issa about the issue, and that he had no plans to take any action. “It’s his problem,” Boehner said.
In his statement today, Issa said that after hearing Bardella's account, speaking to Leibovich, "and an initial review of e-mail correspondence there is no evidence to support speculation that internal committee or congressional documents or conversations were inappropriately shared, that Mark Leibovich ever inappropriately heard or recorded any phone conversation, or that any official rule violations occurred.
"The inappropriate information shared with Mark Leibovich appears to have been limited to Kurt’s own correspondence with reporters," Issa said.
Issa did acknowledge that in November, Bardella sought permission from his supervisors to participate in a book project with 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," Issa said. "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."
Issa added: “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.
Adding to the through-the-looking glass quality of the entire event, news of the inquiry first appeared online on Monday in Politico, which alleged that Bardella had been cooperating extensively with Leibovich on the book.
The irony, of course, is that Leibovich’s book was the outgrowth of an April 2010 New York Times Magazine profile of Politico superstar Mike Allen, which detailed how much influence Allen, Politico, and the media in general have on the workings of government, particularly the White House and Congress. The profile described Allen variously as the “most influential” or “most important” journalist in Washington.
So far, no one is commenting on exactly what Bardella shared with Leibovich, but that has not stopped Politico’s editor-in-chief, John F. Harris, from raising questions. In a letter to Issa on Sunday, he was quoted as saying: “The practice of sharing reporter e-mails with another journalist on a clandestine basis would be egregiously unprofessional under any circumstances.”
Harris went further: “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.”
In the Politico story, Leibovich was quoted as saying that he has an agreement not to “divulge anything about anything until the book comes out.”