The New Yorker: Darrell Issa’s Troubled Past

by Ryan Lizza

Many politicians have committed indiscretions in earlier years: maybe they had an affair or hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny. Issa, it turned out, had, among other things, been indicted for stealing a car, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and accused by former associates of burning down a building.

A member of Issa’s Army unit, Jay Bergey, told Williams that his most vivid recollection of the young Issa was that in December, 1971, Issa stole his car, a yellow Dodge Charger. “I confronted Issa,” Bergey said in 1998. “I got in his face and threatened to kill him, and magically my car reappeared the next day, abandoned on the turnpike.”

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On March 15, 1972, three months after Issa allegedly stole Jay Bergey’s car and one month after he left the Army for the first time, Ohio police arrested Issa and his older brother, William, and charged them with stealing a red Maserati from a Cleveland showroom. The judge eventually dismissed the case.

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According to court records, on December 28, 1979, William Issa arrived at Smythe European Motors, in San Jose, and offered to sell Darrell’s car, a red 1976 Mercedes sedan. William was carrying an Ohio driver’s license with his brother’s name on it and the dealer gave William a check for sixteen thousand dollars, which he immediately cashed. Soon afterward, Darrell reported the car stolen from the Monterey airport. He later told the police that he had left the title in the trunk.

The brothers had been together in Cleveland for Christmas, and, after Darrell gave a series of conflicting statements about his brother and whether he himself had recently obtained a second driver’s license, the investigator in the case became suspicious that the two men had conspired to fraudulently sell Darrell’s car and then collect the insurance money.

The brothers were indicted for grand theft. Darrell argued that he had no knowledge of William’s activities; William claimed that his brother had authorized him to sell the car, and he produced a document dated a few weeks before the robbery that gave him power of attorney over his brother’s affairs. On February 15th, with the investigation ongoing, Darrell returned to the San Jose dealership and repurchased his car, for seventeen thousand dollars. In August, 1980, the prosecution dropped the case.

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Five months later, in January, 1981, at an intersection in Cleveland, Issa had further car troubles. He crashed a truck into a 1959 Thunderbird Classic driven by a forty-year-old woman named Juanita Martin. According to court documents, Issa told her that he did not have time to wait for the police and left the scene. Martin ended up in the emergency room the next day with neck and back pain that she said caused “permanent damage.” A month later, she sued Issa for twenty thousand dollars; they settled for an undisclosed amount.

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Issa was soon suspected of doing something worse: burning down the factory. The initial notion that an electrical socket had caused the fire was challenged. The science of determining whether a fire was caused by arson can be flawed. But a fire-analysis report commissioned by the St. Paul insurance company, and dated October 19, 1982, a month after the incident, concluded that the fire was “incendiary.” The report cited “suspicious burn patterns,” such as “two separate major areas of origin,” and it said, “No accidental source of heating power was located at either of these two major areas of origin.” The manner in which stacks of cardboard boxes burned was inconsistent with an accidental fire. A flammable liquid appeared to have been poured over the boxes. The blue flames seen emanating from the roof were evidence, according to the investigators, of burning carbon monoxide that is produced when an accelerant like gasoline ignites. The black smoke was also a clue. “Such black smoke normally occurs in a fire only when a hydrocarbon is burning,” the report said. When investigators tested burn damage from inside the factory, they found “the same identical mixture of flammable hydrocarbons” in four samples taken from diverse locations.

St. Paul sought out background information on Issa and his companies. Investigators interviewed family members, bank officials, and former employees. They looked into Issa’s court and credit records, mortgage documents, and other personal information.

Joey Adkins, the former owner of Steal Stopper, provided the main evidence against Issa. On the afternoon of September 20, 1982, in a lengthy recorded interview with an insurance investigator, he described a series of suspicious actions by Issa before the fire. Adkins, who still worked for Steal Stopper, said that Issa removed the company’s Apple II computer from the building, including “all hardware, all software, all the instruction books,” and also “the discs for accounts payable, accounts receivable, customer list, everything.” According to Adkins, Issa also transferred a copy of every design used by Steal Stopper from a filing cabinet to a fireproof box. He also said that Issa put in the box some important silk screens used in the production of circuit boards. Insurance officials noted that, less than three weeks before the fire, Issa had increased his insurance from a hundred thousand dollars to four hundred and sixty-two thousand dollars. “Quite frankly,” Adkins told the investigator, “I feel the man set the fire.”

The Ohio state fire marshal never determined the cause of the fire and no one was ever charged with a crime. According to Issa, St. Paul paid Quantum twenty-five thousand dollars, but refused to pay his claim for the Steal Stopper inventory. Issa sued St. Paul for a hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars, and the two parties eventually settled out of court for about twenty thousand dollars.

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