HOMER CITY, Pa. -- Those who know Vicki Iseman see her as a bright, energetic woman who made her way from the farms and coal fields of rural Indiana County to the "ruthless environment" of Washington.
It was a path that took her to the power circles in the nation's capital and now has thrust her into the center of controversy as a lobbyist whose relationship with presidential candidate Sen. John McCain has come under scrutiny.
Yet, for 40-year-old Ms. Iseman, the path also leads back home, where she was the 2006 graduation speaker at her old high school. She moved away 18 years ago, but still visits and enlists Homer-Center School District and Indiana University of Pennsylvania as clients for whom she works to bring in federal money.
Folks in Indiana County proudly remember her well and are protective and supportive of her to the point of being defensive. She has at least two sisters and other relatives in Indiana County, but friends and people who work with her declined to identify them.
"One of her nieces is a senior," School Board President Vicki Smith said yesterday. "I can't imagine what this is doing to her."
Mrs. Smith, who did not grow up in the Homer City area, did not know Ms. Iseman as a student. But she has come to know her through the board's dealings with her as a lobbyist and successful alumna.
A few years ago, Mrs. Smith said, Ms. Iseman contacted the district administrators, "saying she would like to help the district and discuss the possibility of helping Homer-Center obtain some of the federal dollars out there."
"It came as somewhat of a surprise to me, but she was at a point in her career where she wanted to give back to the community, and I admire her for that," said Mrs. Smith, who described Ms. Iseman as "extremely ethical, highly competent and professional." She said she didn't believe Ms. Iseman "would do anything to embarrass or compromise her clients, her firm or herself," and said it was a credit to her that she was able to be a success in "a ruthless environment."
Born in a family of modest means, Ms. Iseman grew up on a farm outside Homer City and attended Homer-Center High School, where she was an excellent student involved in school activities.
Ms. Iseman graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1990 with a degree in elementary education and ventured to Washington, where she was hired as a receptionist for Alcalde & Fay, a high-powered, high-profile lobbying firm based in Arlington, Va. She rose through the ranks to become a senior partner who, in 10-plus years, acquired a list of more than 30 clients including Carnival Cruise Lines, Paxson Communications, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Telemundo Network, and the cities of Miami and Palm Springs, Calif. The bulk of her work involved telecommunications.
But she always found time to assist two clients particularly close to her heart -- Homer-Center School District and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
In 2007, Alcalde & Fay helped the school district land a $100,000 grant to develop "a science-rich environment," paying for teacher training and creating labs and classrooms equipped with the latest technology. But President Bush targeted the earmark and the district didn't get it.
The 2008 budget, however, provides the district $87,000, Mrs. Smith said.
Mrs. Smith said Ms. Iseman's firm also donated $20,000 to the school district in 2006, money that was divided into four $5,000 scholarships for students intending to attend IUP.
"She really is a class act, and she knows her business," Mrs. Smith said.
Officials with IUP confirmed that Ms. Iseman and Alcalde & Fay represent the university's lobbying needs in Washington, but they declined to say how much the firm is paid, saying that the fees are paid through a private foundation.
Dr. Robert O. Davies, vice president for university relations, who oversees the foundation, praised the firm as being effective and helpful in identifying sources of federal funding for research projects.
"They provide advice and wisdom," Dr. Davies said. "They suggest ways to write proposals. They've been very beneficial in many ways."
Ms. Iseman, he said, is the university's primary contact.
"She knows IUP. She knows our issues," he said. "She's very professional. I've worked with other lobbyists before, and once the clock was off, they were on to other things. She's attended our alumni affairs, she was a very active alumna, she definitely has a passion for IUP."
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington watchdog organization that maintains a database on lobbying groups, IUP accounted for $100,000 in lobbying fees to Alcalde & Fay during 2006 and 2007. Additionally, the center's database shows Homer-Center School District paid $100,000 for lobbying services by Ms. Iseman -- $20,000 in 2005, and $40,000 each in 2006 and 2007.
Ms. Iseman has dealt with the offices of Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. John Murtha on behalf of the university and her former school district.
It was because of her accomplishments that Ms. Iseman was welcomed as graduation speaker in 2006, said Homer-Center High School Principal Rick Foust, who was a math teacher when Ms. Iseman was a student there.
"She was not a student who would have come to the forefront with any kind of problems," Mr. Foust recalled. "She was not in the principal's office for any reason."
As far as her speech to the graduating seniors, he said, "She did a very nice job. ... She gave our kids some insights into how to succeed in life. She's very proud of her roots.
"She was a very nice kid. I don't know what the situation out there is, and frankly, I'm not really concerned. I'm grateful for what she's done, and anyone who shows our kids a way out of here, that they can accomplish some pretty interesting things."
Mrs. Smith said it would be a pity if the current controversy would undo Ms. Iseman's work. Already, though, there are repercussions: Alcalde & Fay yesterday removed Ms. Iseman's biography from the firm's Web site.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 26, 2008) This story as originally published in Feb. 22, 2008 editions listed some of lobbyist Vicki Iseman's clients, including Sinclair Broadcasting Group, based on information from the Center for Responsive Politics. However, representatives of the lobbying firm Alcalde & Fay and the Sinclair Broadcasting group deny that the two ever worked together.