But Issa’s office balanced Bardella’s mistakes against his previous efforts and decided to give him a second chance. “Darrell said we took it as a learning experience,” Bardella says. “I don’t think anyone who operates with the sheer volume of things we’ve had to deal with plays error-free baseball.”
Bardella says his comments were the result of fatigue, carelessness, and “vanity run amuck.” They do not reflect his true feelings about the media, he says. Shortly after the piece was published, Bardella contacted Lizza. “I just wanted to make sure you know that I don’t blame you for this,” Bardella said.
On Monday, February 28, Bardella posted an update on his Facebook page: “It’s the start of what I’m sure will be a memorable week.”
Bardella knew things were about to get complicated. The previous Friday, a source told Politico reporter Marin Cogan about rumors that Bardella had been forwarding reporter e-mails to Leibovich. The gossip had been circulating for some time. While Lizza was reporting his story, Bardella spoke freely about passing e-mails to Leibovich. Lizza was aware that his own e-mails with Bardella were being forwarded as well. He even joked with Leibovich about it, Lizza says.
Cogan mentioned the rumor to her colleague Jake Sherman, a spark-plug reporter who had written about Issa and the Oversight Committee. The reporters smelled a scoop and began working the story. (Full disclosure: My wife, Anne Schroeder, is a former Politico reporter.)
Shortly thereafter, Sherman called Bardella and demanded to know if he had been passing reporters’ e-mails to Leibovich without their consent. “Am I bcc-ing him on every e-mail I send out?” Bardella said. “Of course not.” Bardella refused to comment further on what he called “the details of my propriety conversations about [Leibovich’s] project.”
Unsatisfied with Bardella’s answers, Politico editor-in-chief John Harris on Sunday fired off a letter to Issa. “The practice of sharing reporter e-mails with another journalist on a clandestine basis would be egregiously unprofessional under any circumstances,” Harris wrote in his letter. Politico posted Sherman and Cogan’s story on Monday afternoon. By the next morning, news of Bardella’s e-mail sharing was everywhere.
After conducting an internal investigation, Issa concluded that although no sensitive committee documents had been exchanged, Bardella had indeed shared e-mails with Leibovich—a blatant breach of reporter/source trust. From November until late February, Bardella had sent Leibovich e-mails almost daily, more than 100 in all. E-mails from Politico reporters Mike Allen and Jake Sherman were among those shared, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Politico hammered away, posting seven articles on the subject over a 48-hour period. Harris says his publication’s coverage was not influenced by his umbrage at Bardella’s actions. “We do tend to get all over the story of the day,” he says. “When something happens, we swarm on it.”
The story spread to other news outlets—including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. As the media circled, Bardella posted scripture on his Facebook page: “The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.”
The content of the e-mails sent to Leibovich is the subject of tremendous speculation. Bardella insists they’re plain-vanilla media requests—cable news producers trying to book Issa, reporters asking about the Oversight Committee’s agenda—and contain nothing salacious or career-damaging. “All my e-mails with Kurt were the everyday exchanges you’d expect between a reporter and a press secretary,” Mike Allen says. Bardella says his goal was to show Americans what his job was really like, not to humiliate journalists. “I don’t believe [Bardella’s] motives were malicious,” Leibovich says.
But if the e-mails show this routine business to be at times obsequious or deceptive, they could undercut the credibility of the reporters who sent them. Leibovich’s book is expected to come out in 2013.
On the morning after Politico broke the story, Issa called Bardella to his office. “The question of whether he could stay or not was defined by the media, not committee,” Issa says. “He committed no offenses to the office I served in.” Still, Bardella’s actions had reflected badly on Issa, and everyone knew what had to be done. Bardella turned in his congressional ID and government BlackBerry.
He left the office and went directly to Union Station to buy a new cell phone. Driving to his apartment in Arlington, he called Issa’s office to make sure his former colleagues had his new number. As he passed in front of the Capitol, a cop pulled Bardella over for talking while driving and handed him a ticket.
Bardella hunkered down in his apartment for the next several days. Because he had surrendered his congressionally issued BlackBerry and e-mail address, reporters couldn’t find him. His grandmother learned of his firing on Hardball With Chris Matthews.
Bardella’s friends from Capitol Hill showed up at his apartment on the evening of his firing with Trivial Pursuit and wine, and they filled out his calendar with lunches and cocktails. Within a week, he was back on Capitol Hill, stopping by his old office, where he saw Issa. “You have to constantly make sure that you are not isolating yourself, because that is your first instinct,” says Bardella, adding that he’s not mad at Leibovich. He even did more interviews for the Leibovich book after he was fired.
On Capitol Hill, the Oversight Committee’s press team was adjusting to the loss. “Kurt is an example of somebody who is an essential part of the communications team,” Issa says. “He has been missed, there is no question about it.”
Next: Bardella's life after Congress