Senator Rick Santorum's campaign Saturday defended the candidate's reliance in South Carolina on a former lobbyist convicted of bribing a Senate staffer.
The lobbyist, James Hirni, figured in the Jack Abramoff scandals, and his campaign presence may resonate with critics' attacks on Santorum as a creature of Capitol Hill. Hirni pled guilty in 2008 on charges that included giving Senate staffers World Series and strip club tickets in exchange for legislative action. He reportedly stayed out of prison by promising to work as an undercover informant for authorities. The Daily Beast described him as "The GOP's Donnie Brasco."
Hirni has kept a low public profile on Santorum's campaign, but his involvement is an open secret in the state, two South Carolina Republicans told BuzzFeed. He's been referred to as Santorum's South Carolina state director, and recently posted to his Facebook page a picture of himself wearing credentials at a campaign event. Santorum adviser Hogan Gidley confirmed he has a role on the camapaign, but said he doesn't know if Hirni has a title, or whether he is getting paid. (Hirni's name does not show up on campaign finance filings.) But he was present, a source said, at Santorum's caucus-night party.
Gidley cast the story as one of redemption, and noted that Hirni had not had any connection to Santorum when he committed his crimes, though the men were friendly.
"He came to Rick after he got into trouble," Gidley said. "He knew Rick is a spiritual guy, and Rick counseled him."
"He paid his debt to society," Gidley said. "He's born again now."
Santorum was asked about Hirni when he was testing the waters in South Carolina in 2010, and gave a similar answer.
“I've known Jim for a long, long time,” Santorum said. “When he was going through his difficulties, I tried to help him, and counsel him and get him on the right path. I think he's done a good job. I'm really proud of the way he's turned his life around. Coming down to South Carolina has been a great blessing for him. The people here have been terrific to him. I give him a lot of credit.”
UPDATE: Roll Call had a story on Hirni Friday.