Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) said Tuesday he would resign from Congress at the end of the month amid a mounting ethics scandal — but his problems might be just beginning.
His decision means congressional investigators will likely drop their probe into possible ethics violations because they no longer have jurisdiction. But Schock could still face criminal charges related to some of his questionable, excessive spending.
That could add up to staggering legal fees, a possible court case and even jail time.
The congressman’s sudden resignation marked a swift end to the political career of one of the GOP’s fastest-rising stars. The photogenic 33-year-old lawmaker from Peoria had been one of House Republicans’ top fundraisers, served as a senior deputy whip and won a spot on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
But in recent days, even his GOP colleagues began privately questioning how Schock could have violated so many House rules and federal campaign finance laws. And it soon became clear to Schock and the people around him that he wouldn’t be able to survive the mounting ethical challenges.
“I do this with a heavy heart. Serving the people of the 18th District is the highest and greatest honor I have had in my life,” the four-term congressman said in a statement Tuesday.
“But the constant questions over the last six weeks have proven a great distraction that has made it too difficult for me to serve the people of the 18th District with the high standards that they deserve and which I have set for myself,” he continued. “I have always sought to do what’s best for my constituents and I thank them for the opportunity to serve.”
Schock has faced a number of questions since a February story in The Washington Post revealed he had used taxpayer dollars to redecorate his Capitol Hill office in the motif of the PBS TV drama “Downton Abbey.” He quickly reimbursed the government $40,000 for the questionable charges, but the stories of lavish spending didn’t stop there.
Other news outlets reported that taxpayers forked over $10,000 for 10 Schock staffers to attend an event in New York, even though most of them didn’t have any official duties on the trip. Schock also reportedly used taxpayer money to charter a private plane from Peoria to Chicago to attend a Bears-Vikings game last fall.
And he allegedly spent nearly $2,000 from his political action committee on tickets for a Katy Perry concert last summer in D.C., allegedly so his interns could attend.
Barak Cohen, a former prosecutor for the Justice Department’s public integrity section, said that Schock’s case could become a criminal matter if there was a direct quid pro quo arrangement. While he said it’s relatively easy for the Justice Department to initiate an investigation, it’s much harder to prosecute.
“The reason why these cases are hard for the government is that money is part of American politics, politicians are allowed to take money, use money, it’s an implicit part of politics,” Cohen said. “If the government is going to try to prosecute that, the government really has a heavy burden to prove that money is being misused.”
More damaging was a Politico report that stated Schock allegedly billed taxpayers and his campaign for mileage reimbursements for his personal car totaling 170,000 miles, even though the vehicle only had 80,000 miles on the odometer when he sold it in 2014.
A Schock spokesman said the Illinois Republican has repaid the government for all reimbursements he received related to mileage “in an effort to remove any questions and out of an abundance of caution.”
But Meredith McGehee, the policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said Schock could face criminal charges if it’s proved that he filed a false reimbursement voucher.
“You can’t even say this has been a drip, this has been one tidal wave after another,” she told The Hill.
The congressman voted in the House Monday night but was absent for Tuesday’s votes. Several GOP colleagues said they were surprised and saddened by Schock’s resignation.
“I’m very sorry to see him resign,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who learned the news when his press secretary emailed him tweets. “He’s a very talented guy and someone I think very highly of.”
Other Republicans said they were stunned Schock played so fast and loose with House rules and campaign laws.
“Well, we all should know the rules. We’re all given seminars in all the rules. Do I remember all the rules? No I don’t. That’s why I go to my chief of staff,” one GOP lawmaker said before Schock resigned. “There are so many rules, we are a walking misdemeanor waiting to happen. But Aaron’s been here long enough to know there are certain things you at least ought to question.”
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership team were not informed before Schock announced his resignation Tuesday afternoon, aides said. Boehner thanked him for his service and wished him well.
“With this decision, Rep. Schock has put the best interests of his constituents and the House first,” Boehner said in a statement.
Schock’s Peoria-based district is heavily Republican and is expected to easily stay in GOP hands.
Illinois state Sen. Darin LaHood (R), the son of former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, would start out as the strong favorite in a Republican primary. LaHood’s senate seat overlaps heavily with the district, he has close ties with Caterpillar, the district’s largest employer, and his father represented the district for years when he was in the House.
“If Darin wants it, he’s definitely the guy who brings the name, the in-district star power, can raise money, has the organization to move quickly,” said one Illinois Republican strategist.
LaHood told WTAX that he is “getting a lot of encouragement” to run for the seat and plans on making a “formal decision” to run on Wednesday. Illinois state Rep. Jason Barickman (R) is also weighing a bid.
Once Schock officially resigns, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) has five days to determine election dates. The election has to be held within 120 days of Schock’s resignation.
Schock’s departure also means there will be one less Republican in Congress who openly backs comprehensive immigration reform.
“I am so sad that he is resigning,” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a vocal proponent of immigration reform and a fellow Illinoisan. “I am very grateful to him for his wonderful warm friendship, and his support for a bipartisan way to fix our broken immigration system.”
—Cristina Marcos contributed to this report.
This post was updated at 8:35 p.m.