The Associated Press reported that U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) spent taxpayer and campaign funds on private planes owned by some of his key donors. Peoria Journal Star assignment editor and political reporter Chris Kaergard, who’s covered Schock since 2008, talks with us about the latest Schock-related headlines.
The latest news about Schock by the AP details Schock’s use of taxpayer and campaign funds for private planes and expensive travel and entertainment costs. Can you do a quick recap of the latest news stories about Schock’s spending?
A lot started with the initial story on the redecorations of his office a few weeks ago repainting what he argues wasn’t Downton Abbey red but a bold red. That spiraled into the dismissal of major advisors and press spokesman for racially tinged comments online. As all these things are going around, other news agencies began to look at other things that might be of interest about him. Some liberal leaning blogs came out with news about his real estate transaction of a specific house [that] was built and sold in 2012, right around one of his elections, which begot other stories about him, [including] his travel -- campaign travel and public travels. They’re two specific baskets that are inter-related.
One is how is he spending campaign money on travel for things, and the [other is the] AP story on campaign expenses that account for Katy Perry [concert tickets], massages in Baltimore, and high-priced hotels. We’ve talked to him about some of this before. And his argument about campaign spending is you have to spend money to make money. You don’t have fundraisers at the Holiday Inn Express if you want high rollers to show up and give tens of thousands of dollars. … He tends to move in circles where people expect a little more. That’s always been his defense to that.
As for official travel, Politico and USA Today have done [stories] that found questions regarding mileage reimbursements. His office is looking into it, and the more stories there are, there’s more of a need for conclusive details.
What can campaign and taxpayer funds be used for?
I’m certainly not an expert on federal campaign finance law. You practically need a juris doctorate to know all that. Campaign events would be OK. To my understanding, though it’s not totally verified, [a politician] can use campaign monies for certain official purposes… for campaign-based travel, for holding fundraisers and other things associated with doing those types of things or materials within [the elected] district, not necessarily as official congressional purposes but as a candidate of sorts.
This is an incredibly complex arena of sorts. Everyone’s lack of certitude in the media should be commended. The expectation is that people who work with these campaigns are checking these things. Really the question is how closely are these things checked out, and the fact that [his office] is reviewing some of the reports filed and reimbursements suggests, on the generous side, they’re making sure they’re right. On the suspicious side, they might have screwed up.
While the federal campaign finance law is complex, shouldn’t some of the spending, such as Katy Perry concert tickets or private flights from donors, be seen as a potential conflict of interest even to someone who isn't an expert?
There are multiple questions that should be considered. As a gatekeeper, does it pass a legal test? Maybe. Second is does it pass a smell test? Does it look like a conflict of interest? Think, is this really an appropriate thing to be doing, not as a politician but as an elected office holder? Third, what do voters have to say? Whether it passed the smell test or at the ballot box is another question.
View a slideshow of photos from Schock's Instagram account.
What are voters saying? What’s their reaction to the latest news?
That’s been interesting to me. I’ve covered several community events [Schock has been at] since the news started to break. When he talked to the Peoria County Farm Bureau, he answered 90 minutes of questions and not one of them was on his office decorations. They wanted to know about EPA regulations on ditches on farmland, and wanted to know about tax reform, trade policy overseas, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership--which isn’t to say people aren’t interested in those things.
I think most people, when the initial news came out, were inclined to give him a pass and say, “That’s just Aaron’s decorations.” Even with the real estate deals, [people would say] they knew he was a businessman when he was elected…. But the longer this has gone on, the more questions we’re starting to hear from people on what’s going on and are there some problems here. People are paying attention and taking a wait-and-see approach to this. I think they want to know more, if it’s substantive, and they want to know if it’s affecting his ability to do his job or not.
Any political scientists will say politicians really lose support if they’re not in their district and are not handling the basic constituent needs. It’s the easiest way to lose. Is he out campaigning too much? Is he not spending enough time in the district, taking too many foreign trips? Does he worry more about fundraising and not enough about his district?
His office feels he’s paying enough attention to his district, but ultimately it comes down to voters and whether or not they think they have an absentee congressman. People are waiting and taking all of it into consideration, and I think over the next few weeks, we’ll see more certitude from people on what they believe and where they come down on this.
How have the recent news articles been affecting Schock’s image or credibility?
It’s tough to say at this point. At the end of the day, and when he walks on the House floor, he’s one of 135 people that were all duly elected. I don’t think he’s losing credibility there over it.
I think he’s still hugely popular in the Republican caucus because of the money he’s raised. In the district, again, I think it goes back to people taking a wait-and-see approach. The early stuff didn’t hit home. The stuff now about questions into how taxpayer money was used, people might sit up and take notice a bit more. That’s not to say protestors are in front of his office. He’s still greeted warmly at events that I’ve seen him at in the last two weeks.
Interview has been condensed and edited.