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Issa Dogged By New Reports Of Past Legal Troubles

Vista Congressman Leads Davis Recall Effort

POSTED: 11:55 a.m. PDT June 25, 2003
UPDATED: 12:16 p.m. PDT June 25, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- Darrell Issa, the San Diego congressman leading the effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis, was prosecuted in 1980 for allegedly faking the theft of his Mercedes and selling the vehicle to a car dealer, a newspaper reported Wednesday.

Issa issued a statement Wednesday blaming his brother, a convicted car thief, for the scheme, which was detailed in documents on file in Santa Clara County Superior Court.

"Clearly, it was illogical to think that I would, in effect, steal my own car and sell it using my own name in an adjoining county," said Issa, a Republican who has pumped $1 million into the campaign to recall Davis and has declared he will run for governor if the recall qualifies for the ballot this year.

Issa, 49, had faced allegations of involvement in two other car thefts during past political campaigns, but the San Jose case hadn't become public knowledge until the San Francisco Chronicle reported about it on Wednesday.

He was elected to Congress in 2000 from Vista, Calif., after losing a campaign for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1998. In those campaigns, Issa denied allegations of car theft and sought to blame political opponents, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., for planting news stories about the allegations to discredit him.

Earlier this month, Issa spoke with NBC 7/39 reporter Steve Walker about a report in the Los Angeles Times that he had been a run-in with the law as a teenager. Court records show that in 1972, when Issa was 19, he and his brother, William, were indicted on a charge of felony grand theft for allegedly stealing a Maserati sports car from a car dealership in Cleveland, court records show. The case was dropped.

"My brother and I were stopped and arrested. The charges were, in fact, reviewed and dropped," Issa told Walker. " There isn't a story there. And if there is, it's a story of an 18-year-old and his 20-year-old brother."

The Santa Clara case happened in February, 1980, when Issa was a 27-year-old U.S. Army officer, and his brother was 29, according to the Chronicle. The brothers were arrested on a felony auto-theft charge. According to prosecutors said, William Issa sold his brother's car to Smythe European Motors in San Jose for $13,000 cash and three $1,000 traveler's checks. Hours later, Darrell Issa reported the car stolen from the Monterey airport, near his Army post at Fort Ord.

Issa and his brother pleaded not guilty. A judge ordered them to stand trial on felony charges, saying he had a "strong suspicion" that both men were involved in the crime, according to the records.

But in August 1980, a prosecutor dismissed the case for lack of evidence. The men later were charged with misdemeanors, but that case was not pursued, said retired police detective Richard Christiansen, lead investigator in the case.

"William has inflicted pain and sorrow upon our family since he was a teenager. Obviously, his past continues to inflict pain today," said Issa, who became a multimillionaire manufacturer of electronic auto alarms, including the popular "Viper" anti-theft device. "When people ask me why I got into the car alarm business, I tell them the truth. It was because my brother was a car thief."

Issa told the Chronicle that he believed police had targeted him because "they always thought I was not coming clean enough essentially to (help them) prosecute my brother."

Issa said he never tried to conceal his San Jose arrest. He said his campaign managers had advised him not to discuss it unless he was asked about it.

In a third incident, a retired Army sergeant claimed in 1971 that Issa, then an enlisted man, had stolen a Dodge sedan from an Army post near Pittsburgh. The allegation was published in a 1998 story in the San Francisco Examiner. It quoted the retired sergeant as saying he had recovered the car after confronting Issa and threatening him. Issa denied the allegation, calling it reckless, the newspaper reported. No charges were filed.

When his opponent in the 2000 campaign for Congress raised the same auto-theft allegations, Issa denounced them as lies, according to news accounts.

Issa, who was re-elected to Congress last year, founded Rescue California, a pro-recall organization, and has donated $1 million of his own money through Greene Properties, a real estate firm he owns with his wife.

The funds pay for a statewide network of professionals who aim to gather the needed 900,000 valid signatures to put the recall on the ballot. Campaign backers have collected 376,008 signatures as of June 16, the secretary of state reported Tuesday.

"My brother showed me one path a person could take in life, and I have clearly taken a different one. The Issa record the past quarter of a century has been one of hard work, achievement, providing opportunity for others and serving my constituency in the U.S. Congress," Issa's statement said. "I ask to be evaluated on that record."

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Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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