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On a hot July day in 2002, Susan Hirschmann announced her departure as chief of staff to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). After five years of late-night votes and hard-won victories, the Alabama native had become a close confidante of the majority whip, one of the most powerful players in the Republican Party. “Over the years we’ve won a lot of battles, we’ve lost a few battles, but I can’t think of a single occasion when we backed down from a struggle involving our core principles with a chance for victory still within sight,” DeLay said on the House floor. “That’s a testament to Susan’s passion, determination, and strategic vision.” At the time, DeLay’s words were like a benediction for Hirschmann, whose swift rise in the GOP only seemed to be headed upward as she moved to a high-profile job on K Street. Now those words may come to haunt her. Four years later, DeLay’s empire is in shambles. Already under indictment in Texas, DeLay is drawing scrutiny from federal investigators looking into campaign finance irregularities, along with lobbying improprieties connected to his office through ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his friend and former political ally. DeLay’s recent decision to leave Congress is reverberating far beyond those directly involved in the ongoing probes. Already, dozens of lobbyists, government officials, and corporations have lawyered up in anticipation of being drawn into the expanding scandal. But, so far at least, Hirschmann, 42, and her lobbying practice at Williams & Jensen seem to have stayed clear of serious trouble. Yet Hirschmann was closely involved with many of those under investigation. As chief of staff, she was the Texas lawmaker’s right-hand woman from 1997 to 2002, the key period when the alleged travel and lobbying violations occurred. Two of her former subordinates, Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon, have already pleaded guilty in connection with the probe, and another former DeLay aide, Edwin Buckham, has also drawn attention from federal investigators. Hirschmann isn’t talking. In fact, the lobbyist, who has always preferred to work behind the scenes, won’t say if she is cooperating with investigators or even if she has hired a lawyer, as many of her former colleagues have done (chart with this link). Despite her close ties to DeLay, Hirschmann has not been accused of any ethics violations or of breaking any federal laws and is not believed to be a target of the ongoing inquiry, according to dozens of lawyers and former House staffers who were interviewed for this article. But with speculation that DeLay may be one of the ultimate targets of the federal lobbying probe, Hirschmann may yet play a central role in the investigation. “Given her position and close contact with DeLay, to the extent prosecutors want to build a case against DeLay, she will be important,” says Peter Henning, a former prosecutor in the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division and now a law professor at Wayne State University. Hirschmann has leveraged her contacts from her time in DeLay’s office to become one of the most powerful Republican women lobbyists in Washington, with a growing roster of clients that includes Fortune 500 companies such as Motorola Inc. and Time Warner Inc. Her experience as a grass-roots organizer has also won her the trust of social conservatives, and her Capitol Hill background has given her access to power brokers such as current House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). To date, Hirschmann has seen her fortunes grow in concert with those of the conservatives who have ruled the Hill for more than a decade. But the burgeoning Abramoff-DeLay scandal will test whether her rising star has reached its apex. SOUTHERN ROOTS Hirschmann was drawn to politics at an early age. Inspired by President Ronald Reagan’s social conservatism and pledge to shrink the government, she started the first teenage Republican chapter in Chilton County, Ala., while still in high school. “She had a natural ability to get people involved,” says Colin Luke, a Birmingham-based lawyer who was one of the first members of Hirschmann’s teenage Republican chapter. She took that activism to the University of Montevallo, a public liberal arts school just outside of Birmingham, where she organized an active chapter of the College Republicans and eventually became chair of the group’s Alabama state chapter. Her big break came in 1987, when she landed a position as the Washington-based executive director of the College Republican National Committee, an organization whose alumni read like a Who’s Who list of top conservative activists. (Think Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, and, yes, Jack Abramoff.) After the 1988 presidential election, Hirschmann turned to social issues, going to work for the Washington office of Eagle Forum. A socially conservative women’s group, Eagle Forum was founded by Phyllis Schlafly, who made her name leading the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment. Hirschmann’s job made her a regular on Capitol Hill, and through conservative grass-roots coalition meetings, she first came to know DeLay. Republicans were still in the minority, but that was about to change. During the 1994 election cycle, Hirschmann ran Eagle Forum’s political action committee, promoting conservative candidates who helped Republicans take over the House for the first time in 40 years. Those efforts landed her a job as chief of staff for Van Hilleary, a freshman congressman from Tennessee whose campaign Eagle Forum had supported. WELCOME TO THE MACHINE In 1997, Hirschmann was brought into the majority whip’s office by Buckham, then DeLay’s top aide. She started as deputy chief of staff, and, alongside Buckham and Tony Rudy, helped run the Texan’s finely tuned vote-getting machine. Hirschmann’s entry into the Republican leadership came as DeLay was hitting his stride as whip and earning his nickname, “the Hammer.” DeLay’s operation was already well known on K Street, where he had built a network of lobbyists and activists, particularly former staffers who moved downtown and helped orchestrate legislative fights for Republicans. Hirschmann had been among that crew during her days with Eagle Forum. Now on the inside, Hirschmann’s connections to grass-roots organizations and a network of female leadership staffers helped her serve as liaison between DeLay and moderate Republicans. By the end of 1997, Buckham had left to set up the now-defunct lobby shop Alexander Strategy Group, leaving Hirschmann to take his place. On K Street, Buckham became one of the most prominent figures in what was later termed “DeLay Inc.” But even from the outside, Buckham continued to play a significant role in the daily operations of DeLay’s office, former staffers say. Now, Buckham’s relationship to the office and to Abramoff is a focus of federal investigators. He isn’t the only one close to Hirschmann who has been drawn into the Abramoff probe. Rudy, Hirschmann’s deputy until 2000, admitted to taking gifts from Abramoff, including $86,000 in payments, while still on DeLay’s payroll to Liberty Consulting, a firm he started with his wife. Michael Scanlon, DeLay’s former communications director, pleaded guilty in November 2005 to improperly using payments from Abramoff’s tribal clients. While still on the Hill, Buckham also allegedly started a nonprofit that received contributions from Abramoff. Lawyers for all three men declined to comment. But long before the Abramoff scandal came to light, Hirschmann’s relationship with Buckham soured over his attempts to run the office from the outside, say former staffers. Despite the power struggle, Buckham kept his ties to the Texas lawmaker. He employed DeLay’s wife, Christine, as a bookkeeper at Alexander Strategy Group and acted as a spiritual adviser to the majority whip. “Susan made the trains run on time, but the reality was, Buckham fought to control the office [after he left],” says a former leadership staffer. Still, Buckham and Hirschmann continued to work together to advance DeLay’s agenda. For instance, Buckham played a key role in the 1998 House leadership elections, greasing the wheels of the whip operation and advising both then-Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) on the race. His chief associates on the job were Hirschmann, Rudy, and Scanlon. Not only did Hirschmann work closely with the three, she was responsible for signing off on travel in the office as chief of staff. Hirschmann took full advantage of many privately funded excursions, racking up a tab of $118,968 on trips to far-flung locales such as Cairo and Munich — perks within House rules — during her five years in DeLay’s office. But she also accompanied DeLay on three foreign trips, two of which she signed off on, that have recently come under scrutiny because of their ties to Abramoff and Buckham. The first was in August 1997, shortly before Hirschmann became chief of staff. She accompanied DeLay, Buckham, and others to Moscow, where they met with Russian executives and Abramoff. Although House records indicate the trip was sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research, The Washington Post reported last year that the money for the trip had come from Russian business interests that had hired Abramoff to lobby. A few years later, in spring 2000, Hirschmann and her husband, David, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, joined DeLay on a 10-day junket to London and Scotland. The Abramoff-organized trip was officially sponsored by the same nonprofit that paid for the excursion to Moscow, but the Post reported it was financed by Indian tribes and a gambling-services company. The Hirschmanns’ tab: $27,626, according to House records. Hirschmann also coordinated with Buckham’s lobbying shop to arrange for and accompany DeLay on an educational tour of South Korea in 2001. The August trip was sponsored by the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, a nonprofit created by Buckham’s firm and funded by a Korean conglomerate, the Hanwha Group. The trip’s disclosure created a firestorm before the House Ethics Committee because the nonprofit had registered as a foreign agent, which isn’t allowed to sponsor congressional travel. But most of Hirschmann’s time was taken up pushing legislation. Her aggressive, no-nonsense style and staunch conservative values meshed well with DeLay but at times put her at odds with the staff. Former staffers say she was known as a win-at-all-costs strategist who would pit subordinates against one another to get results. “[Susan's] the best damn vote counter I’ve ever met. That’s why I think she’s done really well,” says Ralph Hellmann, a former DeLay aide who is now at the Information Technology Industry Council. “She just knows members and deals with them on a professional and a personal level.” GRADUATION DAYS Hirschmann’s connection to DeLay made her a hot commodity on K Street, all the more so because shortly after she left the Hill, in 2002, DeLay moved up the party hierarchy to majority leader. To negotiate her move to the private sector, Hirschmann hired deal maker Robert Barnett of Williams & Connolly, well known for scoring generous pay packages for former government officials and high-end staffers who go downtown. Unlike some of her former co-workers who stayed together at Buckham’s shop, Alexander Strategy Group, Hirschmann went with Williams & Jensen, a firm she knew because it handles legal work for DeLay’s political action committees. Yet Barnett says that Hirschmann’s star power wasn’t generated solely by her ties to DeLay: “Susan got the job she got, has the clients she has, does the work she does, because of Susan.” During Hirschmann’s first year at Williams & Jensen she lined up clients such as Orbitz LLC, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., and Cablevision Systems Corp. She also started a grass-roots firm, Integrated Legislative Strategies, with Anthony Zagotta, formerly of the DCI Group. A year after Hirschmann left the Hill, she was asked to lead a coalition for newly elected Majority Whip Blunt. The Medicare prescription drug bill was the first major test for the new whip, and the House leadership, desperate for a victory, turned to Hirschmann to head the charge. She coordinated the outside coalition operation with Williams & Jensen colleague Karina Lynch. Together they kept a close tally of the vote, meeting at least weekly and directing hundreds of lobbyists in an effort to woo members. “The Medicare vote was huge. That was probably the hardest thing we’ve done in years,” says John Feehery, a former DeLay staffer who is now at the Motion Picture Association of America. “Tom was critical to that because he brought a lot of the right wing to vote for it.” Of course, her proximity to the House leadership also put Hirschmann in a prime position to look out for the interests of Williams & Jensen pharmaceutical clients such as PhRMA, Pfizer, and Wyeth. Hirschmann’s former DeLay colleagues Buckham and Rudy, both at Alexander Strategy Group, lobbied for the bill on behalf of PhRMA. One of Hirschmann and the coalition’s biggest achievements was to bring the Democratic-leaning AARP on board, particularly because one of its longtime foes, the 60 Plus Association, was also involved. 60 Plus has financial ties to a number of Buckham clients. For instance, 60 Plus received $300,000 in 2001 from Hanwha International, a subsidiary of the conglomerate that funded the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council. That nonprofit was the same one that sponsored Hirschmann’s 2001 trip to South Korea. (The donation was first reported by the AARP Bulletin.) In 2000, 60 Plus also received $45,000 from PhRMA, and pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Wyeth donated a total of more than $100,000, according to a 2003 study of the organization done by the now-defunct consulting shop Ginsberg Lahey. Despite Hirschmann’s efforts, victory in the prescription drug vote came down to the wire. As usual, the Hammer pulled out all the stops. He and the House leadership kept the vote open for an unprecedented three hours as they persuaded members to cast their ballots in favor of the bill. The final tally was 215-214. DANCING THROUGH THE RAIN DROPS Passing the Medicare bill was a critical win for the Republicans’ 2004 elections, and Hirschmann’s key role heightened her profile on K Street. Soon, she was signing up a litany of clients, including FedEx Corp. and the National Indian Gaming Association, and starting the GOP-endorsed 527 Leadership Forum with former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), now a lobbyist at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. In early 2004 the Abramoff scandal began to surface. And suddenly, ties to DeLay didn’t appear so welcome — or so lucrative. Lobbyists at Alexander Strategy Group were forced to close up shop earlier this year after clients fled, and former lobbyists from the firm have just started to land at new shops. Financial services lobbyist Terry Haines jumped to Buchanan Ingersoll, while Edward Stewart moved to MITA Group. But Hirschmann’s book of business has seemingly been left untouched by the scandals. “One of the benefits of a leadership staffer particularly is that they know not just their member; they know all of leadership, the members in leadership, and the staff,” says Gregg Hartley, a former Blunt staffer now at Cassidy & Associates. According to the most recent lobbying disclosure records available, Hirschmann billed $2.6 million during the first half of 2005. She continues to raise funds prodigiously for Republican allies, including her former boss Hilleary and Blunt. In the 2004 election cycle she gave $46,982 to Republicans, and so far she’s doled out $64,180 for the 2006 midterm, according to federal election filings. But Williams & Jensen hasn’t fared entirely well. The firm lost seven clients at the end of 2004, including the National Indian Gaming Association, which had hired the firm to lobby on Internet tobacco sales. The unraveling of DeLay Inc. is only beginning. But even as that machine breaks down, Hirschmann’s supporters believe she will find a way to emerge unscathed. “Her strategic connections are not ones that begin or end when one person leaves Congress,” says Paxon. “Susan is good because she’s a very good big-picture strategist.”
Anna Palmer can be contacted at [email protected]. Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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