Could Aaron Schock actually end up "in jail" for his misspending, as the Illinois Republican's father said after his son's resignation announcement?
It seems possible, with the Chicago Sun-Times reporting that federal investigators based in Springfield, Ill., are looking into Schock's spending, and have subpoenaed witnesses to appear before a grand jury next month. An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the report. Washington sources well-versed in congressional scandals and campaign finance law offered conflicting opinions this week on whether Schock would be indicted by the Department of Justice for making false claims related to official spending, or prosecuted for violating federal election law related to his spending of campaign funds.
"I think there's much more underneath this," said Public Citizen’s Craig Holman. The extent of Schock’s alleged misspending is unclear for now, but if an egregious violation emerges in the near future Holman thinks the DOJ might step in and “ride on the heels of this scandal.”
But Holman identified two factors that weigh against that outcome. The government has been “very liberal historically” on allowing members to use their funds, he said, and the six members of the Federal Election Commission have recently deadlocked on going after violators. The Sun-Times also reported the FEC is taking a look at Schock’s reports.
Illinois already has a congressman in jail: former Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who pleaded guilty in 2013 for using campaign funds for personal gain and was sentenced to 30 months in prison .
But Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center said the feds would "really have to show a smoking gun," such as emails showing a scheme to defraud the public, for Schock to face a criminal prosecution.
On the campaign finance side, there usually has to be clear evidence of a "quid pro quo deal" for a donor, such as the relationship with a Virginia businessman that felled Gov. Bob McDonnell. Although in Jackson's case, the feds came after him for spending $750,000 in campaign funds on a wide array of personal purchases, including a $43,000 Rolex watch, more than $28,000 worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia, more than $10,000 in Bruce Lee memorabilia and more than $5,000 in fur coats and capes.
Other than having to repay money — Schock has already reimbursed the government $40,000 for office renovations, $1,237 for travel to a Chicago Bears game and tens of thousands in mileage reimbursements — McGehee said the likelihood is low he would face other criminal penalties, such as time behind bars. The widespread misconduct that derailed the prosecution and corruption conviction of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, "diminished greatly" the appetite of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section for prosecuting such crimes, she said.
Still, the House Ethics Manual states that submitting false statements on how official funds are spent is a crime. In a 1979 case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed a member's conviction of fraud for having used an official allowance "for purposes other than those intended by the appropriation and duly certified by the congressman."
In addition to the FBI probe, allegations of fraudulent spending also make Schock vulnerable to a lawsuit under the False Claims Act. Anyone can initiate such a suit, and the Justice Department may then take it over, though sources said it's unclear if the sum of the misspending warrants such action.
Schock's resignation prevents further inquiry from congressional investigators. The House Ethics Committee only investigates current members, so its 2012 probe into whether Schock illegally solicited a $25,000 contribution from a political action committee — and any other investigation the secretive committee may have launched in the past six weeks — will be closed once Schock leaves office on March 31.
"The problem for Schock is that had he stayed the investigations would have continued," said Lara M. Brown, associate professor and program director of the Political Management Program at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.
Brown noted Schock isn't the only lawmaker to resign recently.
"We see many more resigning or choosing not to run [due to] party leadership pressure," she said, pointing to New York Republican Michael G. Grimm, who resigned in January, and Florida Republican Trey Radel, who stepped down in January 2014. News of Schock's resignation came as a surprise to Speaker John A. Boehner, however. The Ohio Republican said Thursday he had not talked to Schock.
Illinois voters likely would have re-elected Schock had he chosen to stay in office and run for a fifth term, Brown predicted. But whether he could return to politics after a federal probe is less clear.
"Typically speaking, in order to resurrect [a political career] there certainly has to be contrition — an apology. ... He's going to have to sort of step away and apologize for breaking the trust of his constituents," Brown said.
Schock said in his March 17 statement that 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."
In the midst of the six-week spiral that led to his resignation, Schock expressed uncertainty over whether his conduct violated any laws and hired outside advisers to conduct an internal audit of his operations. Congressional watchdogs like Holman believe that proves the need for better ethics training.
Reacting to Schock's resignation on Thursday, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., said the case "reinforces the imperative of passing" a bill he is co-sponsoring with Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., that mandates annual ethics training for House members. Senators and staff in both chambers are required to undergo the hour-long training, with House members being the only group that is exempt.
While other members of Congress, including House leadership , do not seem to see a teachable moment in Schock's downfall, Cicilline told CQ Roll Call adopting his measure would be "a useful response to ensuring that members know what the rules are." But, Cicilline cautioned, "the reality is the decision is ultimately the member of Congress' to make in a variety of circumstances."
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