Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Illinois) announced his decision to resign at the end of the month on Tuesday. His star was rapidly rising in the GOP, but it fell thanks to a series of scandals involving his use of campaign cash and taxpayer money.
While Schock’s issues, especially his six figure “Downton Abbey” style office makeover might seem unique, the story does touch on a few larger lessons about campaign cash and ethics on Capitol Hill.
I found five key points in my Schock post-mortem:1. Campaign Accounts, particularly Political Action Committee are largely not about getting elected. You can pretty much justify anything as an election related expenditure. From dry cleaning bills to costs of grooming and boarding your family dog. Hey, you need to have a clean suit and a handsome dog in those campaign pictures, no?
The law is vague on what qualifies because it sort of has to be. As a result, campaign accounts — particularly for members in safe districts — become very tempting for members to treat as quality of life slush funds. Member’s political action committee accounts are particularly attractive for this kind of thing because a trip to Palm Beach might raise eyebrows on a filing for a suburban Illinois congressman, but can easily be labelled “party building” or some such when the PAC pays.2. Dipping Into official House office accounts is dumb. With all of the aforementioned fuzziness around campaign finance law, this is pretty much the worst thing to do — and Schock apparently couldn’t resist.
The biggest, clearest smoking gun in the Schock case is the way he used the permissible per mile reimbursement of his personal car as a way of padding his pockets. Not only are these office records very transparent, but they are the source of no end of staff level inspection and gossip. The reports of the clerk are obsessed over by press secretaries and chiefs of staffs because of the desire to appear on the “most frugal” lists and off the predictable reports on who is “wasting” money on what.
I would always rent a crappy car for my official vehicle just so I could brag about how little I spend. It worked.3. There are lots of rules. The ethics rules are tough. That isn’t the problem.
You can’t fly on private planes on someone else’s dime. You can’t take donations to make yourself a Masterpiece Theatre-themed office like Schock did. And you definitely can’t charge the taxpayers for car travel that seems to bend the time/space continuum.
Transparency and technology combined with the good kind of “gotcha” journalism, has made it harder to get away with rule breaking. Schock is living proof.
4. The legal graft in the Schock story may be the biggest problem. The congressman bought a home with the help of a donor for $US300,000 and went to a bank that also had given money and got a mortgage on the property that was worth $US600,000. That’s a big bucks and probably legal way around a ban on gifts that makes even accepting a meal illegal. It’s not an envelope of cash, but it is one of many ways that creative “friends” can “help” a legislator.
5. Sometimes it’s not the crime, it’s the investigation. Besides us both resigning and having too many embarrassing pictures, there is very little that Schock and I have in common. He is accused of real crimes
and a planeload of greed. I did embarrassing personal things and wasn’t honest about them.
However, Schock quickly realised something that I also learned in the final days of my congressional career: being investigated by the House Ethics Committee is an expensive ordeal. When my scandal was unfolding, I was told by some of the best ethics lawyers in DC that I had broken no rule, but that I would need to find about $US1 million to defend myself.
So, when Schock says he wanted to end the distractions, I’m sure a years long investigation (and the bills that would come with it) was part of what he meant.
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