PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — An Illinois congressman who resigned amid scrutiny of lavish spending — including a “Downton Abbey”-style redecorating of his Capitol Hill office — was charged Thursday in a wide-ranging federal indictment that alleges he schemed to profit personally from his government job.
The 52-page indictment accuses the once-rising Republican star, Aaron Schock, of brazen efforts to make money, such as buying World Series tickets with campaign funds and reselling them at a profit. When Schock risked missing a connecting flight for a European vacation, the indictment alleges, he paid a private aircraft company more than $8,000 out of his campaign account to fly him from Peoria to Washington.
Schock spent $40,000 in government funds to redecorate his Washington office, including $5,000 on a chandelier, and asked the House to reimburse him for nearly $30,000 worth of camera equipment, prosecutors allege. The indictment says he ran up a $140,000 mileage tab over six years, reimbursements for 150,000 more miles than his vehicles actually traveled.
The 35-year-old Republican from Peoria is charged in the 24-count indictment with nine counts of wire fraud, five of falsification of election commission filings, six of filing false federal income tax returns, two of making false statements and one each of mail fraud and theft of government funds. A conviction on just one count of wire fraud alone carries a maximum 20 year prison sentence. His arraignment is set for Nov. 21.
“Mr. Schock held public office at the time of the alleged offenses, but public office does not exempt him or anyone else from accountability for alleged intentional misuse of public funds and campaign funds,” the U.S. attorney in Springfield, Jim Lewis, said in a statement announcing the indictment.
After the charges were announced, Schock’s attorney, George Terwilliger, contended in a phone interview that many of the issues singled in the indictment were administrative ones that many members of Congress grapple with.
“It’s baffling to me that the government would think that it’s a proper exercise of discretion to make criminal mountains out of these molehill issues,” he said. “It was evident to us from the first day they subpoenaed him that they had every intent to embarrass and humiliate him.”
Terwilliger said in an earlier written statement that “these charges are the culmination of an effort to find something, anything, to take down Aaron Schock.”
Also a prodigious fundraiser for the GOP, Schock resigned in March 2015 amid intensifying scrutiny over real estate deals, extensive travel that he documented on his social media accounts and other spending documented by The Associated Press and other media outlets. The reports raised questions about improper mileage reimbursements, trips on donors’ aircraft and more.
The former congressman downplayed the allegations in June, saying any wrongdoing was “honest mistakes.”
In his own statement Thursday, which was obtained by The Associated Press, Schock said he never intentionally did anything wrong and that he was eager to defend his name and reputation.
“As I have said before, we might have made errors among a few of the thousands and thousands of financial transactions we conducted, but they were honest mistakes — no one intended to break any law,” he said.
The charges are the culmination of a 19-month investigation that included two grand juries that Schock said “poked, prodded, and probed every aspect of my professional, political, and personal life.”
“Like many Americans, I wanted to have faith in the integrity of our Justice Department,” he said. “But after this experience, I am forced to join millions of other Americans who have sadly concluded that our federal justice system is broken and too often driven by politics instead of facts.”
According to the indictment, Schock also ran up a $140,000 mileage tab over six years, reimbursements for 150,000 more miles than his vehicles actually traveled. Another time, he asked the House to reimburse him for nearly $30,000 worth of camera equipment.
In 2014, Schock bought four Super Bowl tickets for $10,025 paid for by one of his campaign funds, according to court documents. He then resold the tickets at a $1,975 profit and never reimbursed his campaign for the initial purchase price.
Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who is now a Chicago-based managing director of investigations at Berkeley Research Group, said some of Schock’s alleged schemes were bold and elaborate but resulted in relatively petty payouts compared to other high-profile corruption cases that have netted hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“It’s greed but on a comparatively small scale — for Illinois,” Cramer said.
Schock’s attorney said he was confident any future jurors would acquit Schock and would also be “disgusted with what their own government has done.”
Schock began his career as a successful 19-year-old write-in candidate for school board and became the youngest legislator ever elected to the Illinois General Assembly at 23. In Congress, he replaced Republican Ray LaHood, who became President Barack Obama’s Transportation secretary. Ray LaHood’s son, Republican Darrin LaHood, took Schock’s congressional seat after a special election in September 2015, following Schock’s resignation.
If Schock is ultimately convicted, he could join an already lengthy list of Illinois politicians who ended up in prison in recent years.
Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. was convicted for spending $750,000 in campaign money on fur capes, mounted elk heads, Hollywood memorabilia and other personal items. Two of the state’s recent governors, Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich, were convicted of wide-ranging corruption. And former House Speaker Dennis Hastert was convicted in a hush-money case.
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