Burnishing his biography


SACRAMENTO, Calif. - In his transformation from car-alarm magnate to Republican congressman and, now, candidate for governor, California's Rep. Darrell Issa has often recalled his rags-to-riches rise in the business world. Issa's campaign Web site promotes an achievement that seems to symbolize his story: "In 1994, Inc. Magazine recognized Darrell Issa as Entrepreneur of the Year."

But Issa has never won the prestigious national award. The founders of Outback Steakhouse took the magazine's top "Entrepreneur of the Year" honors in 1994.

In an interview, Issa said he actually had won a local Entrepreneur of the Year contest in San Diego, and he hadn't been trying to suggest that he had received national honors. The local contests are conducted as qualifying rounds for the national award.

"I was runner-up three, four, five times, whatever it was - at least three - in San Diego, and then I won the San Diego award," Issa said. "Nobody would ever imply or mislead to, you know, something as simple as the Entrepreneur of the Year award."

In his short political career, Issa has faced small and large questions about his record in business and the military and his brushes with the law. Republican and Democratic opponents have accused him of concealing arrests as a youth and embellishing his story.

Issa's statements and campaign literature from the past 13 years have been compared with military records and other public documents. The review reveals a number of claims contradicted or unsupported by records and verifiable facts.

In a recent interview, Issa said questions about his past are "irrelevant to who is Darrell Issa now and who is Darrell Issa as a governor."

Among the issues:

Issa, who served two stints in the military, first as an enlisted man and later as an officer, has said he was an Army computer research and development specialist. In a 1995 interview, he said that as an officer he had spent four years in the New Mexico desert perfecting electronic warfare techniques that were later used in the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

His military records list Issa's postings during that period as Fort Riley, Kan., and Fort Ord, Calif. Those records and Issa's 1980 Army separation form make no mention of computer training or computer specialty.

The extent of Issa's military education as an officer, according to the records, was an eight-week "motor officer" course in 1976 and a four-day "Equal Opportunity United Discussions Leaders Course" in 1978.

In the interview, Issa said he had "served at the computer facility" at Fort Ord's Combat Development Experimentation Command in the late 1970s, and the Army had sent him to the Boston area for computer training at a commercial school. He said he couldn't recall the name of the school.

During his campaign in 2000 for a seat in Congress, Issa said he had received the "highest possible" ratings in the Army. Military records show that he received a "fair" conduct rating while undergoing basic combat training at Fort Knox, Ky., in November 1970. In June 1971, while serving with the 145th Ordnance Detachment in Manor, Pa., he received "unsatisfactory" conduct and efficiency ratings.

Later ratings were more positive.

During his 1998 campaign for the U.S. Senate, at a time when he was trying to link his candidacy to the legacy of former President Richard M. Nixon, Issa's campaign literature said he had been a member of Nixon's security detail.

Issa had previously said he attended the 1971 World Series as part of Nixon's security team. Records show that Nixon did not attend the 1971 World Series.

In recent comments to the Los Angeles Times, Issa has stood by his statement about having served on Nixon's security detail but has sidestepped the one about the World Series, which has not been repeated in this year's campaign.

"That's from something years before, from a misquote, er, you know, interpretation, years before I even ran for office," he said in an interview this summer.

Issa blames California Gov. Gray Davis for the questions about his resume, some of which were first raised by fellow Republicans in his Senate run.

Those weren't the only discrepancies raised by Issa's GOP rivals, though. And some assertions by Issa about his past have been questioned by other news organizations.

Some of Issa's statements in media interviews, campaign statements and official biographies have disappeared from his resume over the years.

In his 1998 campaign, Issa backed away from a statement that he had started his car-alarm company "from scratch" after The Times reported that he had taken control of the business in a legal dispute with the original owners.

Other statements, such as the one about the Entrepreneur of the Year Award, have become part of the story that Issa offers voters as he campaigns for governor.

Issa speaks often of his rise from a humble upbringing as the grandson of Lebanese immigrants in Cleveland to millionaire manufacturer of car alarms.

In his first run for office in 1998, in which he opposed Matt Fong for the Republican nomination to run against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, Issa's campaign literature promised that Issa's "up-from-the-bootstraps, career in the military, success in business tale will connect with Californians of every walk of life."

His congressional Web site bills the story as "Living the American Dream."

Some of the most persistent questions about that biography involve Issa's arrest record as a young man. He has been charged twice with car theft, although both cases were later dismissed. He was charged twice with carrying a concealed weapon.

On Jan. 16, 1973, Issa pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of possession of an unregistered gun. A magistrate fined him $100, put him on probation and ordered him to pay $107 in court costs. At the time, Issa was a student at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Mich. The arrest was first reported by the Adrian Daily Telegram on July 16.

Asked last month about that arrest, Issa told a Times reporter that the gun was an "unloaded, never-fired, in-the-box, little teeny pistol" and said it wasn't his, although he declined to say whose it was.

Public records show that when arrested, Issa was carrying a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol with seven bullets in its ammunition clip as well as 44 bullets and a tear-gas gun. He was arrested after being stopped for driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street.

In a telephone interview, Donald Payne, the now-retired police officer from Adrian who was one of two arresting officers in the case, said Issa hadn't contested his ownership of the gun at the time. "He was like, 'This ain't no big deal,' you know," Payne said. "He was sitting there saying, 'In Ohio you could carry a gun.'"

Payne, whose account is backed up by the records from the arrest, recalled that Issa had told him that in Ohio, where he was from, to carry a concealed gun, "all you had to have was a reason, and his reason was for protecting his car and himself."

But "at that time, a Michigan off-duty officer couldn't carry a gun in Ohio, so we knew his story was phony," Payne said.

Asked about the discrepancies between Issa's statements about the 1972 incident and police records, Jonathan Wilcox, his campaign spokesman, said, "Congressman Issa truthfully recalled the minute details of a minor incident from 31 years ago."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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