Just a week before the primary, the once-subdued campaign for the U.S. Senate turned nasty Tuesday as Republican hopefuls Matt Fong and Darrell Issa traded heated accusations over new disclosures about millionaire Issa's business career.
Fong, facing a throng of cameras at a midday news conference, said Issa owes voters a detailed explanation about "shocking" legal and ethical issues raised in a Times story that detailed Issa's tumultuous start in the business world.
A Fong spokesman cranked up the tensions further, accusing the San Diego County businessman of "thuggery" in his corporate dealings. If Issa wins the nomination next Tuesday, Fong spokesman Stephen Schmidt said, "it will be the single biggest embarrassment to the Republican Party since David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana" in 1991.
Issa's aides, camped outside Fong's Los Angeles news conference to deliver their response, appeared dumbstruck by the comparison to the former Ku Klux Klan member.
"Wait, are you comparing us to David Duke?" an incredulous Matthew Cunningham, Issa's communications director, asked Schmidt. To erase any doubt, the Fong aide repeated the Duke comparison for the TV cameras.
Issa's aides countered with several broadsides of their own, accusing Fong of breaking his promise not to engage in negative campaigning. "It borders on slander what Matt Fong is doing," Cunningham said.
Issa did not schedule any campaign appearances during the day to answer Fong's charges. Cunningham said it is "beneath [Issa's] dignity to respond."
At a public television appearance Tuesday evening, Issa denounced the allegations as baseless and said he believes he still has the momentum in the campaign.
The day's flurry of dueling news releases and press conferences brought an eleventh-hour dose of turbulence and more media exposure for the two candidates vying to face Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in November's general election. A Times poll last week showed the two in a near dead heat.
At the center of the storm were revelations in The Times on Saturday contrasting some of Issa's key early business dealings in Cleveland with the Horatio Alger image that he has presented in his political ads.
Among other issues, the story reported that Issa got his start in the car alarm business by seizing control of an associate's business through an unusual court maneuver; that he left behind a trail of spurned associates in other dealings; that he was questioned about a suspected arson at his Cleveland manufacturing plant in 1982; and that he was arrested at age 18 on car theft charges that were later dropped.
Fong on Tuesday painted the case against Issa in broad strokes that at times exaggerated what had been reported.
"If he can come up with a credible answer, fine, let's move forward with the debate on issues that are important to Californians. If he cannot . . . I think the California electorate will be prepared with a harsh verdict."
Fong said he was particularly troubled by the allegation that Issa displayed a gun to intimidate an employee whom he was about to fire after he took over a Cleveland auto security company in 1982.
"What does this say about the temperament of a man who wants to represent California in the United States Senate?" Fong asked.
In an earlier interview, Issa had said he did not recall displaying a gun at the Cleveland office. His aides offered a more emphatic response Tuesday, saying Issa "categorically denies that he brandished a gun" in firing the employee.
Cunningham, Issa's press aide, also denounced as reckless a suggestion by Fong that Issa might have been responsible for a fire that ripped through his manufacturing plant in 1982, weeks after his company raised its fire insurance from $100,000 to $462,000.
"To go from that and to make a leap of logic that Darrell Issa set the fire is, I think, wrong, and it's an insult, and it's slander. . . . If it was an arson, he certainly didn't profit from it."
Issa's staff also attacked the credibility of several of the businessman's accusers, stressing--as mentioned in the Saturday article--that two of them were convicted in criminal matters years after their business dealings with Issa in Cleveland.
Issa saved his harshest criticism for Joey Adkins, whose Steal Stopper alarm business he seized in 1982 after calling in a $60,000 note to Adkins. In a statement Tuesday, Issa called Adkins "a destructive individual of low character" and charged that Adkins had tried to extort money from him this month in exchange for his silence about their Cleveland dealings.
Adkins, in a telephone interview Tuesday, branded the accusation "a fabrication" and noted that Issa did not challenge the substance of any of the allegations surrounding the Steal Stopper acquisition. "The facts are the facts, and they're in black and white," Adkins said.