10.07.10

The GOP's Donnie Brasco

Until he got embroiled in a lobbying scandal, James Hirni was a rising star in GOP circles. Now, despite a guilty plea and a pledge to work as a federal informant, Hirni is back in business.

James F. Hirni had the sort of political upbringing that GOP stars are made of: college class president, a stop at the Heritage Foundation, consecutive stints in the offices of Sen. Bill Frist (Tennessee), Sen. Jeff Sessions (Alabama), and Sen. Tim Hutchinson (Arkansas). “In this town, it’s not about how much you know, but about who you know,” he observed—a credo he lived and worked by as a lobbyist representing blue-chip clients such as Fidelity Investments.

“Who you know” was also, in part, what did him in when he was caught bribing legislative aides with World Series tickets, steaks, and a strip club visit. In 2008, Hirni pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services fraud in connection with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, which shook Washington.

But that was not the end of Hirni’s political career.

Today, he's a designated government informant—the product of a plea deal with the Justice Department to spare him jail time. And lately, he’s been organizing fundraisers for such rising Republican stars as South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley and possible 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

That the Abramoff associate is playing matchmaker for Haley and Santorum has left some members of South Carolina’s political community dumbfounded. Although the Department of Justice says that Hirni is free to pursue political work, some question the wisdom of having Hirni anywhere near the financial heart of South Carolina politics—especially because, according to the nature of his plea agreement, Hirni has avoided jail time by promising to cooperate with federal authorities.

“The more he cooperates, the more benefit he is going to get,” said Washington attorney Barry Pollack, who represented defendants in the Abramoff case. “They might as well be talking to a federal prosecutor when they are talking to him.”

The prospect that Hirni may be informing on the very people who are cutting the GOP checks has sent shivers (and snickering) through South Carolina’s tight-knit political community.

“It’s like having Donnie Brasco in the South Carolina Republican party,” said Dick Harpootlian, the former Democratic state chairman.

According to a veteran South Carolina Republican operative, who asked not to be named because of the risk of losing employment, Hirni helped arrange a fundraiser for Haley in Philadelphia on September 19; the following day, he attended another fundraiser for Haley in New York City, although his role in that fundraiser is less clear.

Hirni did not return request for comment. But a spokesman for the Haley campaign said of the Philadelphia event, “Everything was handled by Sen. Santorum and his team. We know of no role played by Jim Hirni.” Meanwhile a spokeswoman for Santorum said that the finance director for Santorum’s political action committee, Nadine Maenza, “arranged the fundraiser directly with Nikki Haley’s fundraising folks.” Haley’s campaign manager Tim Pearson is a former Santorum staffer.

The news of Hirni’s role in South Carolina politics was first reported in The State on Thursday, but the Columbia, South Carolina, newspaper did not reveal the full extent of Hirni’s involvement in local and national politics.

In 2003, before joining Abramoff’s firm, Hirni bought two congressional staffers tickets to a World Series game in New York. At the time, they were both helping craft legislation that could impact a company Hirni represented. Hirni also footed the bill for hotel rooms, airfare, a $400 steak dinner, souvenirs, and a $600 strip-club visit.

Five years later, Hirni pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, a crime that carried a sentence of up to 33 months in prison. But Hirni stayed out of jail by promising to cooperate with the federal government, according to court documents. In his December 2008 plea agreement, Hirni agreed to work, if requested, “in an undercover role to contact and negotiate with others suspected and believed to be involved in criminal misconduct.” Every three months, Hirni and the government confirm his continuing cooperation and postpone his sentencing for a further 90 days.

“I think ethics is the single most important part of my job. Once you violate ethics in this town, once you break that code, you break the trust,” James Hirni said in a 2007 interview.

Before making the plea, Hirni was fired from his position at Walmart as an executive director for Republican outreach, and, having lost his job, Hirni left Washington, D.C. and moved to Charleston, where he had family.

Then, according to an online résumé, Hirni began operating a firm called the H2 Group, described as a “small Charleston, SC-based political consulting and fundraising company.” (Hirni represented companies like Walmart and Blue Cross and Blue Shield through an outfit with the same name in 2007.)

In South Carolina, Hirni caught the attention of state Republican Party Chairman Karen Floyd, who wanted to offer Hirni the job of the party’s executive director. But when prominent people in the political community made noises about hiring someone connected to the Abramoff scandal to run the state party, Floyd reconsidered the offer, according to one Republican operative, who didn’t want to speak for attribution. The current executive director, Joel Sawyer, however, denied that an offer was ever made.

But Hirni still worked on GOP events. In January, along with a former New York fundraiser Mallory Factor, Hirni orchestrated a debate between Rep. Gresham Barrett and Nikki Haley, according to a published report. And according to two Republican operatives, Hirni also did fundraising for an annual Republican dinner—the Silver Elephant Banquet—an event that brought Karl Rove to Columbia in April. Additionally, Hirni worked for Republican consultant Wesley Donehue, who was paid $34,00 by the South Carolina GOP in 2010, The State reported.

While Hirni’s proximity to the South Carolina Republican Party and their star candidate Nikki Haley has upset some Republicans, his efforts to get back into politics could have greater blowback for Santorum, whose relationship with Hirni goes back many years, with Hirni throwing two fundraisers at the Super Bowl for Santorum in 2005.

Some inside the South Carolina GOP downplayed Hirni’s role. “I personally have no knowledge of him,” said former state Republican Chairman Katon Dawson.

But, by all appearances, Hirni himself relishes playing the role of a political big wheel. For a 2007 interview, given to his college alumni newspaper, Hirni posed for a photo, cufflinks flashing, in front of a poster for Thank You for Smoking, the 2005 comedy about a tobacco industry lobbyist (Hirni represented the U.S. Tobacco Company, among other clients). Hirni likes the photograph so much he uses it as the background for his Twitter page.

In the interview, Hirni talked about the toll that the corruption investigation had on Abramoff and reflected on the challenges of raising money and building relationships in Washington.

“I think ethics is the single most important part of my job,” he said. “Once you violate ethics in this town, once you break that code, you break the trust.”

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.