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As chief of staff to then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Susan Hirschmann spent months away from Capitol Hill, visiting exotic international locales while conferring with heads of state and staying at oceanside resorts — most of the time with her lobbyist husband in tow.

The travel wasn’t cheap, but it cost her hardly a dime.

Before leaving the Texas Republican’s office to join the lobbying firm of Williams & Jensen, Hirschmann accepted privately funded travel worth more than $85,000 from a host of corporations, associations and private interest groups, according to disclosure records for travel taken from January 2000 to June 2005 reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University’s Medill News Service.

Among congressional staffers, the only comparable total was the more than $87,000 in trips accepted by Brian Gaston, who worked for two Republicans, then-Rep. Dick Armey of Texas and later Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, during the 5½-year period studied.

Gaston’s total for airfare, lodging, meals and other expenses is tallied from his filings for 39 trips taken over five years — from early February 2000 to late February 2005.What makes Hirschmann’s travel figures notable is not just cost, but the time frame.

Hirschmann’s filings show that her $85,000 total was incurred on 18 trips taken from February 2000 to April 2002 — fewer than half the number of trips taken by Gaston, in less than half the time. (See Hirschmann’s travel disclosure documents.)

And along the way, she also might have violated House ethics rules:

  • News media reported that travel for her husband on a May and June 2000 trip to Great Britain was paid for by Jack Abramoff, an apparent violation of the rule that bars lobbyists from sponsoring travel for members of Congress and their spouses.
  • A document related to the same trip shows that Hirschmann extended her travel past the maximum time allowed by rules.
  • On a 2001 trip to South Korea, she and her husband traveled at the expense of a group registered as a foreign agent, an apparent violation of the rule that bars members of Congress from accepting travel from foreign agents.
  • On seven occasions she filed her disclosure forms after the 30-day post-trip deadline.

In total, the study found that Hirschmann — who did not respond to repeated Center requests seeking comment — reported taking 18 trips costing more than a combined $49,000. David Hirschmann, a lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, went on 12 of his wife’s trips, running up an additional tab of more than $35,000, according to disclosure documents.

Over the course of 26 months, Hirschmann was away from Washington, on at least 90 days of free travel. It included four days in Orlando to learn about amusement park industry safety issues; a seven-day jaunt to Italy for a conference and a week in Hawaii for an aviation summit.

The grand finale

But those excursions pale in comparison with the couple’s subsequent travel.

During a 25-day period in August and September of 2001, the couple went on five consecutive trips across two continents. The combined price tag for the tour, listed as “educational” on disclosure forms, was $34,163.

The journey began on Aug. 11, when the Hirschmanns spent eight days in Scotland courtesy of the Ripon Educational Fund, a GOP-associated think tank with close ties to lobbying interests that include tobacco and pharmaceutical companies.

On Aug. 18, the couple flew from Scotland to Israel for a trip financed by the American Israel Education Foundation, affiliated with a pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

On Aug. 26, the Hirschmanns left there for East Asia, where they began a four-nation tour with a congressional delegation that included DeLay and his wife, Christine.

The trip came under public scrutiny after media reported that Justice Department public documents showed the council had registered as a foreign agent on Aug. 23, three days before the South Korea trip. Members of Congress and their aides are prohibited from accepting paid trips from foreign agents.The group stopped first in South Korea for a three-day meeting with government officials arranged by the Korea-United States Exchange Council. The council was formed in 2001 with help from the Alexander Strategy Group, a Washington lobbying firm founded by DeLay’s former chief of staff, Ed Buckham. Documents uncovered by Time magazine and cited in a March 2005 article indicate the group’s primary purpose was to promote the interests of one of South Korea’s largest conglomerates, Hanwha Group, and those of its chairman, Kim Seung-Youn.

The Hirschmanns had their passports stamped again on Aug. 28 as they moved on to Taiwan for a three-day visit. Sponsored by the Chinese National Association of Industry and Commerce, the delegation’s visit included a meeting with Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and a visit to the National Palace Museum.

Then the Americans were off to Malaysia and Singapore for five days to meet with government officials on the final leg of the journey. The trip included a dinner hosted by Malaysia’s then-Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad.

Disclosure documents filed by Hirschmann list the sponsor of the trip as the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research institute.

However, Malcolm Wallop, a former senator from Wyoming and Heritage Foundation fellow who also was on the trip, told Time that the bill was paid by Belle Haven Consultants. The Hong Kong-based consulting firm co-founded by Heritage President Edwin J. Feulner represents Malaysian business interests. In 2001, Belle Haven hired Buckham’s Alexander Strategy Group, to help represent its Malaysian clients.

Both Feulner and Buckham joined the congressional delegation on the trip’s Malaysian leg. Feulner said Buckham paid his own way.

DeLay’s office and the Heritage Foundation have insisted that Heritage paid for the trip, not Belle Haven. House ethics rules state that only the trip’s official sponsor can pay for the travel.

Plagued by negative publicity from the Abramoff scandal, the Alexander Strategy Group closed its lobby shop and most other operations in January.

Buckham did not respond to requests for comment for this report.

Mike Surrusco, director of ethics campaigns for the nonpartisan political advocacy group Common Cause, questioned whether such trips serve any legitimate educational purpose, or are simply opportunities for lobbyists and corporations to win access to lawmakers and their staffs.

Queen of the Hill

“These groups have a clear agenda, and it’s to affect legislation,” Surrusco said. “Not all trips are like this, but there are plenty of examples of excessive spending on food and lodging for members who are in a position to influence legislation that these companies care about. And, if you presented this to a reasonable person, I think they would find it hard to believe that it was purely educational and fact-finding.”

A native of Alabama, Susan Brackin Hirschmann arrived in Washington in 1987 to be executive director of the College Republican National Committee — a position held in the early 1970s by now White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. For Hirschmann, the job entailed organizing campus efforts for the coming election year. In 1989, she was hired as executive director of the Eagle Forum, the conservative pro-family organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly.

Hirschmann was tapped in 1994 to become chief of staff for then-Rep. Van Hilleary, R-Tenn. Three years later, she moved to DeLay’s office, where she went on to become one of the House’s highest-ranking female staff members.

In 2002, when she announced she was leaving DeLay’s staff for the private sector, she received a number of job offers. She finally settled on Williams & Jensen, a blue chip Washington lobby shop.

“If you want something done right, put Susan in charge,” DeLay said in a release from the firm heralding Hirschmann’s new position. “Her leadership has been an invaluable part of House Republican success and the Whip organization’s winning record.”

Williams & Jensen Chairman and CEO Steven Hart also sang Hirschmann’s praises, calling her “one of the most sought-after Capitol Hill staffers in recent years. No one understands the legislative process and players better. Susan is integral to the firm’s long term growth strategy.”

Since leaving the office of DeLay (set to quit Congress on June 9), Hirschmann has continued to wield significant political power.

Shortly after her departure, she registered to represent more than a half-dozen clients, including major business groups such as the Coalition for Responsible Bankruptcy Laws. Members of the coalition, which Hirschmann represented through 2003, according to lobbying forms, include the Securities Industry Association, which sponsored a Hirschmann trip to Palm Beach, Fla. in 2000, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where David Hirschmann works as a lobbyist.

In 2003, Hirschmann was tapped by Republican congressional leaders for a massive lobbying campaign in support of the House Medicare reform bill that was approved later that year. House majority whip Blunt, a protege of DeLay, reportedly set up a “war room” for a coalition of roughly 400 groups in his Capitol Hill office, with Hirschmann coordinating the effort. The coalition was considered one of the largest ever assembled by Republicans to lobby on a single issue.

Hirschmann also has made her influence felt as president of the Leadership Forum, a “527” nonprofit, tax-exempt fundraising group loosely tied to the Republican House leadership.

The Leadership Forum’s finances came under scrutiny in November 2002 — just four months after Hirschmann left DeLay’s staff — when it received a $1 million donation from the National Republican Congressional Committee. Hirschmann was president of the 527 at the time of the donation.Since 2002, the group has raised more than $1.6 million from large corporate donors and interest groups, including three represented by Hirschmann. Pharmaceutical manufacturers Pfizer and Wyeth each donated $25,000 to the Leadership Forum, while the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America donated $10,000, according to a Center for Public Integrity database of 527 contributions.

The donation triggered a Federal Election Commission complaint by four watchdog groups that argued the transfer violated the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. Within seven weeks of receiving the donation, the Leadership Forum returned the funds. The FEC ultimately dismissed the complaint.

Courting influence

Five of Hirschmann’s 18 trips were sponsored by the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit group that primarily funds travel for Republican lawmakers. The institute’s board of directors includes a dozen lobbyists and the group is funded, in part, by corporate dollars.

The institute reported spending more than $2,700 on the five trips, which filings indicate included a bicameral retreat for GOP leaders at the tony Greenbrier Resort in the mountains of southern West Virginia. Hirschmann also attended a gathering at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, Pa.

By far the most widely reported and disputed trip taken by the Hirschmanns and the DeLays was their spring 2000 visit to England and Scotland to meet with conservative European leaders, including former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The trip, the purpose of which Hirschmann, DeLay and aide Tony Rudy listed on disclosure forms as “educational,” included an outing to the famed St. Andrews golf course.

Rudy pleaded guilty in March to conspiracy charges stemming from the Abramoff corruption probe.

Travel disclosure records list the nonprofit National Center for Public Policy Research as the trip’s lone sponsor. However, credit card receipts have surfaced showing that Abramoff attended the trip and paid for at the travel of five people, including DeLay and his wife; Buckham and his wife, Wendy, and David Hirschmann. There is no record that Abramoff paid for the travel of Susan Hirschmann.

According to news reports, other expenses from the trip were billed to a credit card registered to Buckham, who at the time was a registered lobbyist for Enron Corp., AT&T and the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The credit card receipts were not found in public records but were obtained by the Washington Post and ABC News. Neither trip sponsors nor members of Congress and their aides are required to disclose such documents.

House ethics rules prohibit lawmakers and their staff from accepting travel and related expenses from registered lobbyists.

The contingent from DeLay’s office racked-up roughly $70,000 in total expenses on the trip, according to the disclosure documents.DeLay, who was indicted in Texas last fall on unrelated political money laundering charges, has insisted that he believed the trip was paid by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Abramoff was a board member of NCPPR at the time of the trip.

The Hirschmanns reported more than $27,000 in combined expenses, including roughly $20,000 in transportation, more than $3,000 in lodging, reportedly at the London Four Seasons Hotel, and $4,000 for meals. The DeLays and Rudy spent similar amounts on airfare, lodging and meals, accounting for more than $42,000 in combined additional expenditures.

The Hirschmanns spent 12 days on the European trip, an apparent violation of House travel rules which restrict privately sponsored international trips to one week excluding travel days to and from the United States. The DeLays, meanwhile, spent 10 days in Europe, from May 25 through June 3, while Rudy spent six days, from May 29 through June 3.

Susan Hirschmann also appears to have missed deadlines several times for reporting her trips to the Clerk of the House. Seven trips, including excursions to Nashville, Italy, Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore, and St. Michaels, Md., were reported more than 30 days after the travel, another apparent violation of House travel rules.

Peter Stockton, a senior investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, said that in the past, fact-finding trips lived up to their billing. As chief investigator for 23 years for Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., former chairman and now ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Stockton went on many corporate-funded trips, but insists they were all related to the committee’s work.

“I can’t think of a single trip that wasn’t productive,” Stockton said. “But that’s not the case now. These sponsors get such enormous access to members and their staff and they’re successfully able to influence legislation.”

The only way to put the genie back in the bottle, said Common Cause’s Surrusco, is for the House ethics committee to take a more active role in enforcing travel rules.

“The rules are clear,” he said. “What’s missing is the enforcement.”

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