The rise and fall of Aaron Schock, 'America's fittest congressman'

Once a rising GOP star, Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois resigns amid questions about his financial practices

In a Congress where making news for something other than policy can spell political doom, attention repeatedly veered toward Rep. Aaron Schock's chiseled torso.

"Illinois Congressman Is Schockingly Hot," TMZ reported in 2009, following the boyish Schock's election to the House of Representatives as a Republican from a district including Peoria. When a poolside photo of a shirtless Schock emerged shortly after his election, TMZ was at it again: "The gentleman with the steel midsection from Illinois has the floor."

But there was not much scandal to go along with this kind of extracurricular scrutiny--at least not back then--and in fact, Schock welcomed it.

"First, you've got to get their attention," Schock said in 2009, reflecting on the peculiar notice he'd attracted. "Step 1 in getting anyone's vote is getting their attention."

Depending on whose generational strictures you follow, Schock, born in 1981, was the first millennial to get elected to Congress, yet his congressional career has now imploded in truly traditional Washington fashion: because of money.

On Tuesday, following intense scrutiny over his finances after he remodeled his House office a la “Downton Abbey,” Schock, 33, announced he would quit Congress at the end of March.

"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," Schock said in a statement.

Schock, the first member of Congress born in the 1980s, had always been more than mere tabloid bait (although he was anointed "America's fittest congressman" in 2011 by Men's Health, which pictured him shirtless on the magazine's cover).

For every election since 2008, Schock has crushed Democratic challengers at an increasingly dominant pace, winning his first race with 59% of the vote, and winning his most recent, in November, with 75%.

Shortly after Schock first arrived in Congress at the age of 27, Eric Cantor, then the House whip, named Schock a deputy whip, adding, "In only a few short months in Washington, he has already established himself as a leader."

When he steps down, he will abandon his membership in three congressional committees, including the important House Ways and Means Committee. 

"It seemed like he was going to be a new, younger face in the political scene, and it was disappointing to see," said Angela Loring, 38, a teacher interviewed outside a Peoria grocery store in his congressional district, of Schock's resignation.

Schock defined himself as that new, younger face with a well-documented lifestyle. He piled up more than 18,000 followers on Instagram, where he posted photos of himself skiing, surfing and at concerts.

He also attracted the skeptical eye of the LGBT media, which ginned up a noisy ecosystem of doubt about the bachelor congressman's sexuality with popular stories such as, "The 7 gayest Aaron Schock Instagram posts of 2013." Schock has said he is straight.

His downward spiral began when a Washington Post reporter noticed that Schock had a natty office loaded with antiques and pheasant feathers--a setup inspired by the TV drama "Downton Abbey"-- prompting a minor PR freakout by Schock's staffers. 

“You’ve got a member [of Congress] willing to talk to you about other things,” Schock's communications director, Benjamin Cole, said as he tried to persuade the Post not to run the story. “Why sour it by rushing to write some gossipy piece?”

That piece led other outlets and ethics watchdog groups to scrutinize Schock's spending practices. After the Post piece, the designer who did the “Downton” makeover, Tracy “Annie” Brahler, gave back the $35,000 that she’d been paid from Schock’s congressional expense account for the job, according to USA Today. Schock then paid Brahler $40,000 out of his own pocket for the work.

Further investigations raised questions about Schock's financial disclosures and practices, particularly his use of private air charters.

The Associated Press found that Schock had spent at least $40,000 in taxpayer and campaign funds on at least a dozen flights on planes owned by key donors. The AP reported that the flights paid for by taxpayer funds may have violated House expenditure rules.

Then a Politico investigation found that Schock had billed the government and his campaign for reimbursements for 170,000 miles of travel on his personal car, a Chevy Tahoe -- which had only 80,000 miles on the odometer when he sold it in July. The congressman announced his resignation less than 12 hours after he was confronted with the discrepancy.

A spokesman told Politico, “In an effort to remove any questions and out of an abundance of caution, Congressman Schock has reimbursed all monies received for official mileage since his election to Congress.”

In recent weeks, Schock has not spoken at length about questions surrounding his financial expenditures. In February and March, his office appeared to be issuing the same statement to inquiring reporters: “After questions were first raised in the press, Congressman Schock took the proactive step of assembling a team to review the compliance procedures in his official office, campaign and leadership PAC to determine whether they can be improved.”

But at a March 6 news conference back in Peoria, before the storm waves had subsumed him, Schock acknowledged that perhaps his most notable asset--his image--had become a liability.

"I know that when I take a trip, and I post photos online, it can create the misimpression of being out of touch, or an image that is not worthy of my constituents," Schock said then. "I have tried to balance being a young congressman and doing things differently and more open with maintaining a level of seriousness on the issues of the day."

Schock added, "I know some days I have failed at this."

The Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.

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