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Ex-Senate Aide Pleads Guilty to Fraud

A one-time Senate aide and former associate of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty in federal court Friday morning to one count of fraud.

James Hirni appeared in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia and pleaded guilty to allegations that he provided gifts to Congressional aides in an effort to procure legislation favorable to a client he represented.

Former Senate aide Trevor Blackann, who worked for Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), pleaded guilty earlier this year on a related charge of tax fraud for not reporting the gifts he received from Hirni.

Among the gifts Hirni acknowledged to providing Blackann and an unnamed House aide was a 2003 trip to the World Series in New York City valued at more than $1,000. Blackann acknowledged to providing airfare, hotel rooms, a steak dinner and a visit to a strip club, but said he did not personally provide tickets to the baseball game.

Hirni has agreed to aid government prosecutors in their long-running corruption investigation and will not be immediately sentenced. Attorneys are scheduled to submit a status report to the court in March, at which time a sentencing date could be set.

Hirni faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and three years probation, as well as a fine of up to $250,000. However, Hirni and government prosecutors have agreed to a maximum sentence of 33 months, as long as he continues to assist prosecutors. Hirni could alternately face as little as no prison time to six months, according to his attorney.

Hirni, dressed in a blue pinstripe suit, maintained an even demeanor during the hourlong proceeding, although two women sitting in the court’s gallery cried during the hearing, particularly when Hirni officially entered his plea. Exiting the court, Hirni extended a closed fist to an unidentified male spectator, who returned the gesture.

Hirni spokesman Scott Sobel, also in attendance at the hearing, stressed to reporters that at the time Hirni provided the World Series trip and violated the law in late 2003 he was employed at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal and was not working directly with Abramoff.

But Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal also issued a statement Friday, asserting that the firm, which fired Hirni in 2003, had no knowledge of his illegal activities until the Justice Department charged their former employee earlier this year.

“Mr. Hirni, a former employee, worked at Sonnenschein for 10 months in 2003 before the firm initiated his separation and he departed to pursue other endeavors with Jack Abramoff,” the statement reads. “The firm had no knowledge regarding any illegal conduct by Mr. Hirni, as we have since learned the conduct to which Mr. Hirni has pled guilty today occurred just weeks before his unrelated termination from the firm and during a period when Mr. Hirni was seeking to collaborate with Mr. Abramoff and his associates.”

Hirni, a former Senate aide, did not begin working at the firm Greenberg Traurig, where Abramoff was then employed, until late December 2003.

Hirni was recently fired from his post as executive director of Republican outreach for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and is currently seeking employment.

He was released without bond and will be allowed to travel domestically to pursue a new job. According to Sobel, Hirni is in discussions with a local university.

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