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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

And another one bites the dust! Schock's expensive tastes and inappropriate fiscal shenanigans have done him in.

Rep. Aaron Schock resigns from Congress. Here’s a guide to the scandals that did him in.
By Dylan Matthews and Andrew Prokop, March 17, 2015

1.  Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) will resign from Congress at the end of March, Politico's Jake Sherman, Anna Palmer, and John Bresnahan reported Tuesday.

2.  Schock had been embroiled in a sprawling set of scandals over his own finances and his use of taxpayer dollars. These scandals involved the financing of his House office renovations, private flights he took on donors' planes, and his sale of an Illinois home to a campaign donor for a curiously high price.

3.  But the final straw was a Politico inquiry into Schock charging the federal government for "tens of thousands of dollars in questionable mileage reimbursements." Schock had charged taxpayers and his campaign for about 170,000 miles driven on his car, but when he sold it, the odometer showed it had only been driven 80,000 miles.

4.  Shortly after Politico asked Schock about the matter, he resigned, calling the scandals "a distraction."

Schock's scandals kept getting worse and worse
The press's inquiries into Schock's spending began after a seemingly innocuous Washington Post article about his office being redecorated in the style of Downton Abbey. But since then, a sprawling variety of new matters have come to light, resulting in the Politico investigation into his charging taxpayers for mileage that appears to have forced him from office.

Who's Aaron Schock, anyway?
Schock, 33, is a Republican serving his fourth term representing Illinois's 18th District. He was first elected in 2008, following the retirement of Rep. Ray LaHood (R-IL), who would later serve as President Obama's first Transportation Secretary.

Due to his relative lack of seniority, Schock doesn't hold a committee or subcommittee chairmanship, but he does have a seat on Ways and Means, which, owing to its role crafting tax, safety net, and trade policy, is arguably the most powerful committee in the House. He also garnered a minor role in House leadership (as one of four "senior deputy whips") after backing Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) in his successful bid for House majority whip. He's not exactly a backbencher, but he's not a major figure in the caucus, either.

Ideologically he's a pretty down-the-line conservative, in marked contrast to the moderate LaHood. He voted against the stimulus, Obamacare, and the Dodd-Frank act, and has signed Grover Norquist's pledge to not vote for new or increased taxes. He has earned 0 percent scores from Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and the Human Rights Campaign, and perfect scores from Financial Executives International and the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform. As of 2013, he has a 75 percent lifetime score from the American Conservative Union.

Why do we care about this one congressman who's not even a major part of the leadership?
It's true that Schock has a public profile out of proportion with his actual influence in the House. Some of that can be chalked up to the fact that he's young and ambitious: he became a congressman at 27, an Illinois House member at 23, and a school board member at 19. He's been slowly rising through the House ranks by getting the Ways and Means spot and the senior deputy whip gig, and seriously considered a 2014 bid for Illinois governor.

But Schock's relative celebrity has less to do with him being young and ambitious than with him just being young. His looks have garnered him attention in the tabloid press — "Illinois Congressman Is Schockingly Hot," declared TMZ — and he's played along by, for example, displaying his abs and pecs on the cover of Men's Health.

So no, this isn't nearly as big a deal as if a powerful committee chair like Ways and Means' Paul Ryan (R-WI), or a senior leadership member like Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) or Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), were facing these charges. But Schock's certainly better-known than most members of the House.

What's the deal with Schock's office?
This scandal was sparked by a February 2 Washington Post article by Ben Terris on the decorations in Schock's House office. Terris got a tour of the office from Schock's interior decorator, Annie Brahler, who explained that the outer office — featuring "a gold-colored wall sconce with black candles" and "a Federal-style bull’s-eye mirror with an eagle perched on top" — was based on the "red room" from Downton Abbey. Schock's private office featured "a drippy crystal chandelier, a table propped up by two eagles, a bust of Abraham Lincoln and massive arrangements of pheasant feathers." Terris' visit didn't sit well with Schock's staff, who asked the reporter to delete photos of the extravagant office before relenting.

The report prompted criticism: while members are allowed to spend out of their own pockets to decorate offices, Brahler had offered her services free of charge (though Schock had to pay for the materials she bought for the office). In an interview with ABC News' Jeff Zeleny, Schock said he'd pay Brahler back so as to not run afoul of ethics rules, but also dismissed the hubbub: "You know, as Taylor Swift said, 'haters are gonna hate.'"

Following Terris' report, USA Today's Paul Singer discovered that Schock had used House funds to pay for tens of thousands of dollars of office renovations before the most recent, Downton-inspired makeover. In early 2010, "Schock spent $79,061 on furniture purchases, including $5,123 from a company called Mulnix Industries that specializes in hardwood podiums." He also paid more than $4,000 to a fine-leather furniture company. House officers are allowed to use their budgets for furniture purchases and renovations, so this doesn't appear to be a formal ethics violation, however unseemly it may appear.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) also suggested Schock may have used campaign funds to pay for House office furniture, and asked the Office of Congressional Ethics to look into the matter.

What's the deal with Schock's mileage reimbursements?
Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times reported Monday that Schock had used a campaign fund to buy a Chevy Tahoe, but had gotten the federal government to reimburse him for mileage accrued on the vehicle. That didn't look great.

Then Politico uncovered something much worse. When Schock sold that Chevy Tahoe in July 2014, it had about 80,000 miles on the odometer. But over the past several years, Schock had billed taxpayers and his campaign for about 170,000 miles driven on the car. "The documents, in other words, indicate he was reimbursed for 90,000 miles more than his car was ever driven," Jake Sherman, Anna Palmer, and John Bresnahan report.

According to Politico, Schock resigned less than a day after he was asked about these discrepancies.

What's the deal with Schock's travel?
Schock has expensive tastes. He has a habit of staying at five-star hotels — like the Four Seasons in San Francisco or the Wynn in Las Vegas — and traveling on private planes. Most of this is financed through his campaign committee, which makes it legal: as long as you're not literally embezzling cash to yourself, federal regulations about how you can spend campaign dollars are pretty permissive.

Nonetheless, Schock's use of campaign money on luxury expenses has prompted criticism from watchdog groups. In a 2012 report, CREW faulted Schock for receiving $104,511 in reimbursements during the 2010 campaign for "campaign catering, transportation, meals and lodging," including a stay at a Athens, Greece's five-star Grande Bretagne Hotel. That same cycle, he listed a $319 purchase from the exercise company P90X as a "health-care" expense.

Of greater legal concern to Schock is his use of House funds for travel. An AP investigation by reporters Jack Gillum and Stephen Braun found that since mid-2011, Schock has been on at least a dozen flights, collectively worth more than $40,000, on private planes owned by campaign donors. They figured this out, in part, because Schock is a prolific Instagram poster: "The AP extracted location data associated with each image, then correlated it with flight records showing airport stopovers and expenses later billed for air travel against Schock's office and campaign records."

More than $24,000 of the total came from Schock's House account, for eight flights on an Illinois donor's plane in 2011 and 2012. That's a problem for him, as before 2013 office funds could not be used for flights on private aircraft. This is kind of a technical violation: the plane in question is also available for charter flights, which would've been allowed, but because Schock booked it as a private plane he appears to have fallen on the wrong side of the line. Schock's travel expenses are unusually high: USA Today's Singer found that only 11 members of the House spent more on travel in 2013, and most of those members are in much geographically larger districts.

Gillum and Braun also found that Schock charged his political action committee (PAC) "more than $24,000 for tickets and festivals, including $13,000 to country music events"; that includes the time he brought his interns to a Katy Perry show in DC, which he appears to have expensed as a "PAC fundraising event."

What's the deal with Schock's house?
In 2012, Schock sold his home in Dunlap, Illinois, to Ali Bahaj, a campaign donor and former Caterpillar executive, for $925,000. Schock had purchased the property (then a vacant lot) in 2003 for $128,250; though he had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the place built (the Peoria County assessor estimates the property has $251,650 in improvements), he reported a profit of $500,000 to $1 million from the sale on a House disclosure form.

The problem is that $925,000 is hundreds of thousands of dollars higher than the sale prices for similar homes in that area at that time, BlueNationReview's Jimmy Williams found. If Bahaj purposefully paid above market value for the house, that could constitute an improper gift, a violation of House rules. CREW filed an ethics complaint asking OCE to look into the home sale.

What's the deal with Schock's fundraising violation?
In 2012, Schock solicited a $25,000 donation from then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) to a Super PAC supporting Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who was in the middle of a primary battle with Rep. Don Manzullo (R-IL) after redistricting placed them in the same district. The FEC doesn't allow a "federal candidate or officeholder" to solicit checks above $5,000 for super PACs.

After OCE called for a full investigation, the House Ethics Committee began one. That investigation remains ongoing.

What's the deal with Schock's racist staffer?
This is an unrelated matter, but it emerged around the same time as recent revelations about Schock's spending, compounding his public relations problem. Benjamin Cole, Schock's communications director, posted a variety of racist comments on his Facebook page, which ThinkProgress and Buzzfeed reported on February 5, three days after Terris' story on the office renovation (which features Cole desperately trying to do damage control) was released.

Cole uploaded a video of a black woman in an argument with the comment, "So apparently the closing of the National Zoo has forced the animals to conduct their mating rituals on my street. #gentrifytoday." He also joked that President Obama should have a mosque installed at the White House because "it would be nice for the President to have his own house of worship," and complained about "deportables" and "Black criminals" in his neighborhood.

Schock characterized the comments as "inexcusable and offensive" and accepted Cole's resignation.

What's next for Schock?
Now, Schock himself will follow his former staffer out the door. His resignation will cut off an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics, since Schock is no longer a member of Congress. However, criminal charges from other law enforcement bodies are still a possibility.

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