He's been named one of the "50 Politicos to Watch" and frequently appears on Fox News and MSNBC. But Republican lobbyist Todd Boulanger and his former colleague James Hirni have come under increasing federal scrutiny in the Justice Department's wide-ranging influence peddling probe stemming from Jack Abramoff, according to recently filed court documents and interviews.
The two former Abramoff associates appeared to have emerged unscathed from the lobbying scandal: Boulanger is a lobbyist with the Washington powerhouse Cassidy & Associates, and Hirni recently joined Wal-Mart's government relations office.
But history appears to be catching up to them. Now their work for United Rentals, a major construction company, may draw them into the more than four-year-old federal investigation.
Their connection to the probe shows that even after the Republicans have fallen from power, the investigation into the party's abuses continues and is expected to lead to new criminal indictments in the coming months, according to people familiar with the probe.
The scrutiny into Boulanger and Hirni was first disclosed in court documents filed Thursday as part of the plea agreement of Trevor Blackann, a former congressional staffer to Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) and Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Blackann, who according to disclosure records most recently worked as a lobbyist for Dairy Farmers of America, pleaded guilty to making false statements on his 2003 tax return about $4,100 in gifts he received from individuals identified as Lobbyist D and E while they were lobbying him for clients.
The court documents do not name Lobbyist D and Lobbyist E. But public documents and interviews indicate that description in the court documents match Boulanger and Hirni, though neither has been charged with a crime.
Lobbyist D is identified in court documents as a former Senate staffer who began working for Abramoff in 1999 at Firm A, moved with him to Firm B until he left in 2004. The court document also states that he worked as a lobbyist for an "equipment rental company." Boulanger, a former staffer for Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH), worked for Abramoff from 1999 to 2004 at both Preston Gates and Greenberg Traurig. His lobbying disclosure records for 2003 and 2004 list United Rentals as a client.
Lobbyist E is identified in court documents as having worked for a senator from February 1997 to March 2000 as a legislative assistant, briefly worked as a lobbyist and then went back to the Senate from February 2001 to January 2003 as a legislative director. He then began lobbying, joining Abramoff in December 2003. James Hirni worked for Sen. Jeff Session (R-AL) for those three years as a legislative assistant and then as a legislative director for Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-AR) between 2001and 2003. In between he was a lobbyist with the National Federation of Independent Businesses. When Hirni left the Hill in 2003, he first worked at Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal and joined Abramoff's team by the end of the year. Disclosure records also list him as a lobbyist for United Rentals.
The court documents also indicate other individuals are under close scrutiny, including House Staffer D, who allegedly received gifts from the lobbyists who were asking for his help with clients, and Lobbyist F, who worked as an in-house lawyer for the construction company. (There are no in-house lobbying records for United Rentals for 2003 and 2004.)
According to the documents, Boulanger began giving Blackann tickets for sporting events and concerts shortly before Blackann joined Bond's staff December 2000. Boulanger would also buy Blackann meals and drinks, continuing until he resigned from Greenberg Traurig in March 2004. During 2003 alone, Boulanger spent more than $3,100 buying such gifts for Blackann, according to the documents.
The biggest event was in October 2003 when Boulanger and Hirni took Blackann and Staffer D on a free trip to the first game of the World Series in New York, including round trip airfare, an overnight stay in a hotel, a private chauffeur, a souvenir baseball jersey, food and drink as well as "admission to and entertainment at a gentlemen's club following the game," according to plea agreement.
During this period, Boulanger would often ask Blackann for help with clients, including in February 2001 when Boulanger asked Blackann to help obtain a letter of support from his boss for "a person seeking political appointment in the Bureau of Indian Affairs," according to the document. (The Justice Department informed Bond he is not a target of the investigation, according to his office.)
Boulanger and Blackann were personal friends. (According to a 2005 article in The Hill newspaper, the two went sailing together.) But, according to the court document, "Blackann knew that the lobbyists gave these things of value for or because of officials action they were seeking from him or had obtained from him." And, it said, he took those gifts knowingly.
In a statement, Blackann's lawyer, Carol Elder Bruce, said that, "He deeply regrets his conduct and takes full responsibility for it."
So far 15 individuals, including several top government officials, have been convicted as part of the influence peddling probe stemming from the activities of Jack Abramoff. But many more individuals have surfaced in emails and media reports.
Boulanger left Abramoff for Cassidy shortly after the first public reports raising questions about Abramoff's lobbying operation in 2004. Since then, he has managed to reestablish himself and now boasts clients from Whirlpool Corp. to the Motion Picture Association of America. Indeed, just this year The Politico listed his as one of the "players" to watch, noting, "From his successful weathering of the Jack Abramoff storm to his many cable TV appearances, Boulanger has proven his nattily attired, outside-the-box staying power."
Hirni, too, appears to have had similar staying power. He followed Boulanger to Cassidy where he racked up an impressive list of clients, including BellSouth, Fidelity and Freddie Mac. And it appears that he thought he had put his Abramoff days behind him. When asked by the alumni magazine of his college, Wheaton, about what lesson he learned working for Abramoff he replied, "It underscores the point I made previously about appearances and ethics. You have to be straightforward in how you do business. You always want to make sure you follow the rules that are in place, and you make sure you do things on the most ethical, up-and-up level."