Federal prosecutors finalized a deal Wednesday that would undo the criminal charges against a former congressman from Illinois accused of misspending campaign and government money for his personal benefit – as long as he pays back taxes and reimburses his campaign.
Aaron Schock, 37 – who became infamous because his Capitol Hill office was decorated in the style of the TV show “Downton Abbey” and his six-pack abs once landed him on the cover of Men’s Health magazine – conceded as part of the deferred prosecution agreement that he had done some wrong, and he agreed to pay taxes he skipped and reimburse his campaign committees nearly $68,000.
But the case that once threatened to put Schock in prison almost certainly will end without him being convicted – marking a stunning reversal for the government. Prosecutors agreed to dismiss all the charges against Schock, provided he holds up his end of their bargain, and his campaign committee agreed to plead guilty to violating the record keeping provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act and pay a $26,500 fine.
In a statement, Schock said the outcome “validates this case should have never been started in the first place.”
“This case has dragged on for more than four years and I am ready to put this behind me and move forward,” he said. “I have stated consistently and constantly that mistakes were made in the handling of my campaign and congressional offices, and I have acknowledged responsibility for that. But mistakes are not crimes.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office that handled the case, said, “We believe this agreement provides a sensible resolution. It’s a just result and provides the necessary public accountability.”
Schock was charged in 2016 in a 24-count indictment that accused him of wire fraud, mail fraud, theft of government money, making false statements and filing false documents. Prosecutors say the former congressman from Peoria, Illinois, reimbursed himself for 150,000 miles he never drove, bought a new 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe for his exclusive use with campaign committee money and used government and campaign money to take a private plane with a group to Chicago for a Bears football game, among other things.
The case, though, was troubled from early on. In 2017, Schock’s attorneys say investigators acted inappropriately in the case, including by exploring Schock’s sex life and whether he was gay. That same year, the lawyer for the House of Representatives asserted that investigators had possibly committed a crime themselves when they had a staffer-turned-informant take materials from Schock’s district office.
The Justice Department replaced the prosecutors on the case last year, and Schock struck a deal with the new team from the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago. Fitzpatrick said the office “conducted a thorough review of the case before proceeding with today’s agreement.” U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly approved the agreement at a hearing Wednesday.
Schock acknowledged as part of the agreement that he did not accurately report mileage and other expenses to his campaign and to the House, and he conceded that he was reimbursed for miles he did not drive. He also admitted that, while in office, he would re-sell sports tickets – including to the World Series and the Super Bowl – for profit, and that he made about $42,000 in income that he did not report on his taxes while in office. He agreed he would pay those back taxes.
Schock was once considered a rising star in the Republican Party – a prolific fundraiser whose Instagram account was filled with pictures of his outdoor adventures. But in early 2015, the Office of Congressional Ethics began looking into how Schock spent taxpayer money, including the tens of thousands of dollars used to decorate his Capitol Hill office in the style of the PBS show “Downton Abbey.” Schock stepped down from Congress that year.
When he was indicted, Schock vowed to fight the charges, and he hired a high-powered criminal defense team to represent him, including George Terwilliger, a former deputy attorney general who worked under Attorney General William Barr during Barr’s previous stint leading the Justice Department.
Terwilliger said in a statement that the case “was never justified by either the relevant facts or the law.”
“We knew all along if we got this case in front of reasonable prosecutors,” he said, “it would not stand up.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Matt Zapotosky