Smith-Schock ties attract scrutiny

Smith-Schock ties attract scrutiny

Rep. Jason SmithJason Thomas SmithMain Street businesses need permanent tax relief to grow House panel votes to boost spending by 3B over two years Progressives come to Omar's defense MORE (R-Mo.) joined his close friend Aaron SchockAaron Jon SchockThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Cohen back on the hot seat Prosecutors drop charges against former Rep. Aaron Schock Supreme Court won't hear appeal from ex-Rep. Aaron Schock MORE on campaign and government trips and exotic vacations in 2014 that are being scrutinized by federal investigators looking into alleged spending abuses by the former congressman, who resigned in March.

One of the trips was a private charter flight that started in the Illinois Republican's hometown of Peoria and made multiple campaign stops in Michigan and Indiana in late October 2014. It had not previously been reported that Smith, elected to Congress two years ago, was on that trip.

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Revelations that Smith, 35, accompanied Schock on the campaign trip come the same week The Hill reported that Smith has hired Schock’s former chief of staff, Mark Roman, who managed the congressman’s office at the time of his spending scandal.

There's no indication that federal prosecutors have questioned or sought records from Smith, but his participation on trips now under criminal investigation could drag one of Schock's closest friends in Congress into his legal mess and undermine Smith’s political image as a humble, salt-of-the-earth fiscal conservative. The news has also led to chatter on Capitol Hill, where Roman’s hiring by Smith surprised many.

In a brief interview with The Hill, Smith on Thursday referred all questions about the flights back to his office. Smith’s chief of staff, Josh Haynes, said he didn’t have many details about the Midwest flights because the trip was organized and paid for by Schock.

And Smith is not required to pay for the charter flights because they could be considered a gift from another member, which is allowed under House rules.

“The flights were organized by another campaign,” Haynes said in an email. “Congressman Smith campaigned in 17 congressional districts last cycle with multiple members to help build our majority.”

Smith, a farmer and attorney who represents a sprawling southeastern Missouri district, is just one of a handful of congressmen who were born in the 1980s, as was Schock. A former majority whip and Speaker pro tem in the Missouri statehouse, Smith was elected to Congress in June 2013 in a special election to replace GOP Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, who took a job running the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. 

He served on the House Ways and Means Committee with Schock, whose successor, Republican Darin LaHood, the son of former Transportation secretary and former Rep. Ray LaHood, was sworn in on Thursday.

Federal prosecutors are casting a wide net in their investigation of public and campaign dollars handled by Schock, who is engaging in a legal standoff over congressional emails, travel records and other documents.

According to recent court filings, federal investigators have subpoenaed all financial, campaign and accounting records from Schock, including banking and financial institution, reimbursement and travel records.

That covers his congressional and personal records, as well as those from his various political committees, staffers and relatives. Investigators are specifically homing in on Schock’s extensive travel, demanding he turn over “itineraries, calendars, schedules, modes of transportation, costs, and reimbursements.”

One of Schock’s political action committees appears to have paid a Peoria, Ill.-based aviation company for the charter flights through the Midwest, according to campaign finance reports. The company is affiliated with some of Schock’s big donors.

Other media reports have raised questions about Schock’s practice of spending tens of thousands of taxpayer and campaign dollars to fly aboard private planes owned by donors.

The 2014 campaign trip kicked off in Peoria, Ill., where Smith’s campaign finance records show he spent $375.16 on a hotel room at the Marriott Pere Marquette on Oct. 28.

A review of photos from Schock’s now-private Instagram account also place Smith with Schock during campaign stops in Birmingham, Mich., where the two congressmen campaigned for future GOP Rep. Dave Trott, and Sutton’s Bay, Mich., where they stumped for GOP Rep. Dan Benishek. Other photographs obtained by The Hill show Schock and Smith fundraising for Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) in South Bend, Ind.

Schock also posted to Instagram other photos from that trip taken in Saginaw and Lansing, Mich. Smith stayed overnight outside of Lansing in Okemos, Mich., where Smith reported a campaign expense for a $209 room at the Hampton Inn & Suites on Oct. 29.

Roman’s hiring by Smith raised eyebrows from some GOP aides on Capitol Hill. Roman, who is finishing his first week as Smith’s new deputy chief of staff, accompanied Smith and Schock on part of that Midwest trip, and has vacationed with Schock and Smith in both Brazil in May 2014 and Argentina last December.

He’s also among the handful of former Schock staffers who have been called to testify before a grand jury in Springfield, Ill., as part of the federal investigation.

“If I were Smith, I’d be keeping my head pretty low right now. It sounds like he might be next in the crosshairs. That’s pretty worrisome,” one of Smith’s House Republican colleagues told The Hill. Hiring Schock's chief of staff “wouldn't have been something I would have ever considered. It looks like he's kinda playing with fire.”

Campaign finance records appear to suggest that Schock and Smith flew on a plane owned by Byerly Aviation, located in Schock’s hometown of Peoria. Byerly, according to The Associated Press, does business with brothers Todd and Jeff Green, wealthy Schock donors who operate car dealerships in the former congressman’s district.

Days after the Michigan and Indiana trip, the Schock Victory Committee, a PAC, cut three checks to Byerly in the amounts of $5,553, $9,172 and $17,533.

The AP reported this year that Todd Green’s Italian-made Piaggio twin-engine turboprop traveled to eight cities last October in the Midwest and on the East Coast, where Schock huddled with political candidates before the midterm elections. Jeff Green was paid $12,560 for the flights by another Schock committee, the GOP Generation Y Fund.

But Haynes, Smith’s chief of staff, insisted his boss did not use the multimillion-dollar Piaggio plane during his Michigan trip.

“He was not on that plane,” Haynes said.

Earlier this year, another of Smith’s trips with Schock — this one an eight-day visit to Brazil — also came under scrutiny.  

In May 2014, Schock organized an educational and cultural trip, paid for by the Brazilian government, that included Smith and Reps. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) and Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The four lawmakers did publicly disclose the trip, as is required.

But after official business was conducted, Schock, Smith and three of their aides — including Roman and Shea Ledford — headed to the Brazilian beach resort town of Canoa Quebrada.

Later that December, Schock posted Instagram photos of himself, Smith, Roman and Schock’s photographer, Jonathon Link, hanging out at a vineyard in the famed Mendoza wine region of Argentina and whitewater rafting the Andes rivers of Potrerillos. Schock paid Link thousands of dollars in taxpayer and campaign money to snap dramatic photos of him around the country and around the world.

Many of those photos ended up in Schock’s Instagram account. Some GOP aides said it was odd for lawmakers to be taking their staffers on exotic vacations.

“Most Hill staffers use vacation days to get away from their boss,” quipped one former Hill leadership aide.