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Congressman whose 'Downton Abbey'-inspired office went viral now faces criminal charges

Congressman whose 'Downton Abbey'-inspired office went viral now faces criminal charges
Aaron Schock, pictured in 2015 and once considered a rising star among congressional Republicans, has been indicted on various charges, including theft of government funds. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

Aaron Schock was 27 years old when he was elected to Congress and became the first member of the House born in the 1980s.

Already a political veteran — he won a write-in campaign for the Peoria, Ill., school board at 19 — Schock was seen as one of Capitol Hill's up and comers. It didn't hurt that he was a gym disciple with a camera-ready face.

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But six years after being sworn in as a congressman from Illinois' 18th District in 2009, Schock resigned amid a federal and state criminal probe into how he spent campaign dollars and his $1-million-plus annual office budget.

Now, Schock, 35, faces a 24-count federal indictment handed down this month by a Springfield, Ill., grand jury that accuses him of pilfering his campaign accounts and his House allowance for personal expenses that included travel, a flight aboard a private plane to watch the Chicago Bears and even rent payments.

Schock denied the charges in a statement issued by his defense attorney's office, saying he intends "not only to prove these allegations false, but in the process, expose this investigation for what it was."

The spending scandal that spurred Schock's downfall erupted after what might have been a flash in the pan. He had his congressional office suite decorated with a motif inspired by "Downton Abbey," a highly popular British period drama.

Aaron Schock's congressional office was decorated in a motif inspired by the PBS period drama "Downton Abbey."
Aaron Schock's congressional office was decorated in a motif inspired by the PBS period drama "Downton Abbey." (Ben Terris / AP)

An Illinois designer was paid for the work, but one of Schock's aides tried to cover up her compensation. Within days, the press began digging into Schock's far-flung trips, reliance on private aircraft and practice of overbilling the government for auto mileage.

Schock was indicted for crimes including theft of government funds, fraud, making false statements and filing false tax returns.

The indictment said Schock profited from an annual "Congressman Aaron Schock Washington DC-Fly-In," in which constituents traveled to the capital, at their expense, and attended various meetings with political leaders.

The events required a fee, but the indictment said "at no time did Defendant Schock disclose to the public or fly-in participants that he intended to personally profit from the payment of excess registration fees." In one instance, Schock submitted a false invoice in an attempt to make $11,000 off one fly-in event, according to the indictment.

The indictment represents a colossal fall for the ambitious central Illinois politician who won four elections to Congress.

Schock, a doctor's son born in Morris, Minn., moved to Peoria in childhood and as a teen started investing in real estate.

He won the seat on the Peoria school board in 2001 and sat on the board until 2005, when he won election to the Illinois House of Representatives. There, he served two terms until heading off to Congress, full of promise.

He was seen as having the vitality and communication tools to help remake the Republican Party. He was among those cited in the 2010 book "Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders," which was written by three lawmakers including Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), now the House speaker.

Schock was a robust fundraiser and at ease showing up on TV news shows to tout GOP policies. Republicans rewarded him with a seat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and he became a deputy whip.

Still he was restless. Schock considered a 2014 run for Illinois governor before sitting out the race. In Congress, Schock's flamboyance set him apart from his party's gray-haired elders.

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He was a gym fanatic who bared his six-pack abs on the cover of Men's Health magazine. On Instagram he documented his adventures in exotic locales from the Greek isles to the glaciers of Patagonia, once even posing for a photo while dancing the tango in Buenos Aires.

A photo on Aaron Schock's Instagram account shows him dancing in Buenos Aires in 2014.
A photo on Aaron Schock's Instagram account shows him dancing in Buenos Aires in 2014. (Aaron Schock / Instagram)

Not content with a pastel-colored office, he brought in a decorator from a firm called EuroTrash and had his suite painted ruby red and styled like the televised drama about aristocrats and their servants.

Early in 2015, Schock aides tried to quash a Washington Post story on the redecorating, and one staffer asked the Post reporter to delete pictures taken on a smartphone. An aide said designer Annie Brahler of Jacksonville, Ill., donated her services. But records that emerged showed she did not work gratis.

In a statement this month, Schock said that he resigned from Congress in March of 2015 "amid a frenzy of negative reporting, which was overblown and inaccurate, but so distracting that it was preventing me from serving my constituents the way they deserve."

Before leaving office, Schock repaid the government $122,590, which included more than $86,000 in public money from mileage reimbursements over six years. A Chevrolet Tahoe he traded in at a friend's car dealership in Peoria in 2014 had an odometer reading with about 89,000 fewer miles than the total he represented in seeking reimbursements from the government and his political funds.

The repayment also included $35,000 in tax dollars paid to the interior designer.

After Schock quit, Republican Darin LaHood won his congressional seat and was reelected Nov. 8. He is the son of Schock's predecessor, Ray LaHood, who retired from Congress in 2009 and became President Obama's transportation chief during the president's first term.

The ruby red walls were repainted beige even before the younger LaHood took the seat.

Schock mostly ignored the press after resigning, though in a June interview with the Peoria Journal Star, he talked about being the focus of a federal probe.

"It's been a year, I'm not that interesting of a guy. It's not like I'm the Gambino crime family," he said. "If there were mistakes, they were honest mistakes, but nobody was like, 'Do it wrong! Screw up!' "

Schock said he had gone back to real estate development. The onetime member of the GOP House leadership team was working with a firm involved in "large hospitality projects."

Skiba writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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