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Lawmaker, often target of investigations, zeros in on bullet train

Official photo U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, the dogged Republican investigator from Vista who has himself been an investigative target, is taking on California’s bullet train.

In a letter last week, Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, told the California High-Speed Rail Authority to preserve two years worth of documents, records and e-mails concerning its “use of federal funds” on the controversial $68 billion bullet train project.

Issa said his committee wants the documents for a probe that will focus on alleged misspending of federal funds, as well as on “allegations concerning conflicts of interest and possible mismanagement; and how these factors might impact taxpayers.”

Issa wrote the letter to authority Chairman Dan Richard, whom Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown named recently to retool the bullet train project. Under Richard, the state has shaved $30 billion off the project’s price tag, but critics say its financial projections still are hopelessly optimistic.

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Meanwhile, Central Valley farmers and environmentalist groups from the San Francisco Peninsula have objected to the project’s proposed route and have filed lawsuits to get it changed.

In his letter, Issa wrote that the federal government already has spent more than $3.6 billion on the California project and may be asked to foot the bill for half of the entire cost.

The documents Issa identified in his letter appear to include material also being sought by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch.

Claiming it was being stonewalled in its quest to learn about the California project, Judicial Watch filed a federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the government in February.

The letter from the lawmaker and the lawsuit suggest that Republicans will try to exploit the bullet train controversy in their campaign to unseat President Barack Obama, observers said.

In California, criticism of the bullet train hasn’t split along party lines.

But nationally, federal spending on rail is a partisan issue, with Republicans bitterly opposed, said Richard Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation and a bullet train critic.

“House Republicans smell blood now,” Tolmach said. GOP lawmakers have killed rail projects in the Midwest and Florida, and criticism of California’s project “is bound to flare up in the national election,” he said.

In his letter, Issa expressed concerns about the bullet train’s route, its finances and the computer model to project ridership – all issues that have been raised by California critics.

In addition, Issa cited a 2010 Los Angeles Times story reporting that two rail board members might have violated conflict-of-interest law because they also were serving as public officials in cities on the bullet train’s proposed route.

The officials, former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and Richard Katz, a member of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, have since left the rail board.

Richard, chairman of the rail board, said he welcomed congressional scrutiny.

"Any project of this size should be subject to overview,” he wrote in a statement. “We of course will cooperate with the committee, but do not believe any conflict of interest has occurred."

Since Republicans won control of the U.S. House, Issa’s committee has conducted a series of high-profile investigations.

Yesterday, for example, Issa held televised hearings into what he called a “culture of wasteful spending” at the federal General Services Administration.

The hearings followed reports that agency officials had spent $800,000 on a lavish Las Vegas conference in 2010. The General Services Administration's inspector general found the conference spending ”excessive and wasteful,” and agency head Martha Johnson resigned.

Issa’s role as chief investigator also has led to renewed scrutiny of the lawmaker’s own problematic past.

Yesterday, National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” aired a hard-edged profile of the millionaire California lawmaker, recapping incidents from Issa's years in the Army and his early business career. All first came to light after he began running for public office.

In 1998, Issa – then the wealthy manufacturer of the Viper line of car alarms – ran for the U.S. Senate, hoping to oppose Democrat Barbara Boxer.

But before the GOP primary, the Los Angeles Times reported that Issa had obtained control of his company amidst “accusations of underhanded tactics and intimidation (and) a suspected arson.” Issa also had been arrested on suspicion of stealing a Maserati in his hometown of Cleveland, but the charges were dropped, the newspaper reported.

Soon after that, the San Francisco Examiner challenged Issa's claims about his Army record.

Issa said he was part of an elite unit that guarded President Richard Nixon at the 1971 World Series. But Nixon didn’t go to the World Series, the newspaper wrote, and Issa’s service was marred by “a bad conduct rating, a demotion and allegations he had stolen a fellow soldier’s car.”

Issa lost the Republican primary but later was elected to Congress. In 2003, he helped bankroll the recall of Gov. Gray Davis while gearing up to run for the office himself.

Then the San Francisco Chronicle reported that in 1980, Issa and his brother had been charged with car theft in Santa Clara County. Police said Issa, then a lieutenant in the Army, had conspired with his brother to fake the theft of Issa’s Mercedes, which they then sold. The charges were dropped. The newspaper also reported that as a young man, Issa had been arrested twice on misdemeanor weapons charges.

In the end, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger, not Issa, who ran for governor in the Davis recall.

In response to the stories, Issa denied wrongdoing. The Maserati theft and arson accusations were baseless, the LA Times quoted him as saying, and the Examiner said Issa denied misrepresenting his military record. Issa told the Chronicle that his brother was solely responsible for the incident involving the theft of the Mercedes, and he complained that it was unfair to dredge up the gun arrests.

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