A former Senate Republican aide who became a lobbyist was sent to jail for the afternoon Wednesday for treating Capitol Hill staffers to a World Series game, in a case arising from the Jack Abramoff scandal.
James Hirni of Charleston, S.C., went to the federal courthouse lockup for about four and a half hours for helping host the 2003 trip to Yankee Stadium.
Hirni was lobbying for United Rentals, which leases construction equipment and wanted an amendment to a highway funding bill to boost business. Hirni helped treat staffers from House and Senate committees that oversee transportation money to game tickets, airfare, hotel accommodations, souvenir jerseys at the park, a chauffeured Cadillac Escalade, steak dinner and entertainment at a strip club.
Afterward, Hirni worked with the staffers to try to get the language that United Rentals wanted into the legislation, but it was not included in the final version passed into law.
Hirni, who turned 39 on Tuesday, had worked for GOP Sens. Bill Frist of Tennessee, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas before becoming a lobbyist. United Rentals was his first client and was also represented by a second firm where power lobbyist Abramoff worked.
Abramoff's firm later hired Hirni to join them, but that was a couple months after the World Series trip and he only stayed for three months. But his conduct still came under scrutiny by investigators looking into the gifts that Abramoff and other lobbyists showered on government officials in exchange for favors that would help their clients. Abramoff and 20 others were eventually convicted in the investigation.
Hirni and the prosecutors had asked U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts for no jail time because Hirni had admitted his role in the influence-peddling scandal and helped convict others involved. But Roberts said he wanted to send a message that Hirni's deal-making was not an acceptable way to do taxpayer's business.
"The public's laws cannot be made this way," Roberts told Hirni before U.S. marshals promptly escorted him from the courtroom, bringing back his tie, belt and wallet for his family to hold. Roberts called it a one-day sentence, but said Hirni should be released no later than 4 p.m. EDT. The judge also sentenced him to two years' probation and 100 hours of community service.
Roberts is scheduled to sentence two others involved with the trip in the next week. A former Abramoff deputy, Todd Boulanger, helped organize the trip but did not attend. Trevor Blackann worked for Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond on the committee that oversaw the transportation bill in the Senate.
Prosecutors are not asking for jail time for either; each pleaded guilty and cooperated in the investigation.
All three men testified at trial against the House staffer who went on the trip, Fraser Verrusio, an aide to House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska.
Verrusio argued the trip was a legitimate business meeting and that he did nothing for United Rentals in return, but a jury convicted him of conspiracy and accepting an illegal gratuity.
Roberts also sentenced Verrusio to the afternoon in the courthouse lock-up, although in his case prosecutors were asking for a longer jail sentence.
Hirni told the judge he accepted full responsibility for his mistake and was trying to move past it. He said the case made him a better person. Because of his guilty plea, he was fired from a job as a lobbyist for Wal-Mart that paid more than $200,000 a year and he lost his home in Washington. But he said his marriage has grown stronger because he has more time for his family and that his 9-year-old daughter is thriving in South Carolina.
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