PEORIA — Federal prosecutors allege former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock "defrauded the federal government and his campaign committees and covered it up with false and fraudulent statements, claims and invoices."
The 24-count indictment, filed Thursday, charges the Peoria Republican with wire fraud, falsification of Federal Election Commission filings, mail fraud, theft of government funds, making false statements and filing a false tax return. All are felonies that could send Schock to prison. The most serious counts are the wire and mail fraud as well as the falsification charges, which all carry a 20-year maximum sentence.
"These charges allege that Mr. Schock deliberately and repeatedly violated federal law, to his personal and financial advantage," said U.S. Attorney Jim Lewis in a news release.
But even before the indictment was unveiled, Schock's attorneys challenged the charges as a "misuse" of power and an abuse of prosecutorial discretion.
"These charges are the culmination of an effort to find something, anything, to take down Aaron Schock," said Schock's lead counsel, George Terwilliger, at a news conference in Peoria Heights about an hour before the charges were released.
He later emphasized that "there's no allegation in this indictment that Aaron sold or corrupted his office" and that it contained "none of the traditional indicia of what's public corruption."
At the same event, Schock said while he "might have made errors among a few of the thousands and thousands of financial transactions we conducted … they were honest mistakes. No one intended to break any law."
None of the allegations involve large sums of money relative to other fraud cases, but the number of incidents and the years over which they allegedly occurred fill pages upon pages. Schock is scheduled to appear in the Springfield courtroom of U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough on Nov. 21.
That Schock wasn't arrested and merely issued a summons indicates it's highly unlikely that he will be held pending trial. Rather, he — like most people in similar cases — will be released on a personal recognizance bond and expected to appear at each hearing.
Among other issues, prosecutors allege that from 2008 until 2014, the former congressman received mileage payments from the House and his campaign committees of about $138,663, for official and campaign-related travel.
"Assuming all of the miles driven on Schock’s vehicles were official and campaign-related, and no personal miles were driven during this time period, Schock allegedly caused the House and his campaign committees to reimburse him for approximately 150,000 miles more than the vehicles were actually driven," according to prosecutors.
Bogus payments, the charges allege, averaged $1,200 a month, which was enough to cover the cost of a 2010 Chevrolet Tahoe he had purchased in 2009. However, the amounts requested for reimbursement varied each month, the charges allege, to make it less "obvious."
In many cases, the charges against Schock deal with his political campaign accounts — an area that is usually first the territory of the Federal Election Commission, said Terwilliger, who is a former top Justice Department official under George H.W. Bush and one of the lead lawyers behind George W. Bush's successful recount effort.
"The FEC doesn't refer anything to the Justice Department unless it's a knowing and willful violation of campaign laws," he said, indicating that the FEC had not weighed in on any of those matters.
The charges against Schock include many elements that have appeared in media reports, including some airplane travel reimbursements and the renovations to his congressional office that initially sparked the media curiosity that began to spiral into scandal.
But they also include new material, including accusations of inappropriately funded renovations to Schock's apartment and allegations that he purchased tickets to the Super Bowl through his campaign committee and then, prosecutors say, resold them for a profit.
Another claim effectively suggests that he took for personal use money paid by constituents to participate in his annual "fly-in" to the Capitol in 2013.
The indictment reads, at times, like a manual for new members of Congress. It lays out, in great detail, how congressional office allowances are to be used and how Schock allegedly violated those rules.
That's one of many areas where Schock's attorneys fired back at prosecutors.
"The practice has been that the interpretation of House rules belongs to the House and not to prosecutors," Terwilliger said.
"When prosecutors start stepping into that, it ought to give every member of Congress pause," he added. "It raises some real serious separation of power issues."
Terwilliger also challenged the timing of the indictment, coming days after a national election. Top officials — including each U.S. attorney — traditionally resign at the end of a president's term, particularly when there's a partisan change of power.
Schock is the only individual named in the indictment, though the actions of a number of campaign and congressional staffers are alluded to by their title, including former photographer Jonathon Link, former district chiefs of staff Dayne LaHood and Carol Merna, and former political director Karen McDonald Haney. In some cases it is less clear which former employees are being referenced.
Schock resigned office in March 2015 amid a growing series of media reports questioning his campaign — and taxpayer-funded expenditures. Days after his resignation, a federal investigation into his conduct started, and a federal grand jury began hearing testimony and questioning former aides and others in the case. In June 2015, federal agents executed a search warrant at Schock's campaign office, taking documents and computers. That came in the wake of a voluminous series of additional documents and financial records voluntarily turned over by Schock.
In the months that followed, Schock's attorneys, congressional officials and federal prosecutors jostled over the production of additional documents that the government was seeking as part of the grand jury investigation. That segment of the saga was unusual in that the squabbling was done in the open, through a series of court filings made public. Typically grand jury proceedings and accompanying matters are secret, with investigations not even being confirmed by prosecutors. Even in this instance, officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office have declined to respond to questions.
Schock's resignation came after six weeks of revelations about his business deals and lavish spending on trips as well as questions about his mileage reimbursements. Media attention began to focus on him shortly after the publication of a feature piece in the Washington Post about the redecoration of his office with decor that the piece described as reminiscent of a room in the BBC series "Downton Abbey."
The four-term congressman was initially defiant, and the resignation of the rising star in the Republican Party surprised many. Schock was a top-tier fundraiser for the House GOP beginning with his first term in office and had an elevated public profile from his social media postings about both policies and his world travel, from India and the Vatican to England, Greece and Argentina.
After his departure from office he remained more or less silent and out of the public eye, though he has frequently continued his regular routine while in Peoria. He first made extensive public comments in June when he attended Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech to a joint session of Congress — Schock had worked with Modi even prior to the latter's election, and brought him to the charity Global Citizen Festival in New York City in 2014 — but Schock said at the time during an interview with the Journal Star that he knew little new about the investigation.
Last month, Schock appeared at a news conference in Elmwood announcing the construction of a new Habitat for Humanity home there. He has long been a supporter of the organization and was involved in its early "veterans build" efforts to construct homes for area service members.
Chris Kaergard covers politics and government. He can be reached at email@example.com and 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard. Andy Kravetz covers courts and crime. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 686-3283. Follow him on Twitter @andykravetz.