From rising star to early retirement: What brought down Aaron Schock?

Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill. speaks to reporters in Peoria Ill, Feb. 6, 2015. The Associated Press has learned that Schock billed taxpayers more than $10,000 on private flights last fall that included a trip to a Chicago Bears football game. The flights last November don’t include more than a dozen trips on donors’ planes that Schock paid for out of his House office expenses or campaign funds since joining Congress in 2009. (Seth Perlman/AP Photo)

Rep. Aaron Schock, once one of the Republican party’s fastest-rising stars, announced his retirement Tuesday after less than four terms in Congress.

The 33-year-old from Illinois appeared to have it all: a blossoming political career that included first-class trips across the country, celebrity friends like the pope and Ariana Grande, not to mention the best bod on Capitol Hill — all of which he documented for his 18,300 Instagram followers.

But over the past couple of months, a series of inquiries by reporters from Washington to Illinois have suggested Schock may have been misusing taxpayer dollars to fund his glamorous life.  Eventually, those inquiries sparked the attention of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which, ahead of Schock’s announcement Tuesday, had reportedly started contacting members of his inner circle. In what appears to be a preemptive attempt to avoid a full-blown ethics investigation, Schock decided to step down.

In a statement confirming his resignation, Schock said 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. I have always sought to do what’s best for my constituents and I thank them for the opportunity to serve.”

Those “constant questions” all started with a February story on the Washington Post’s website that, at first, seemed like little more than a quirky anecdote. But upon closer inspection, the story raised eyebrows and, as Schock mentioned, real questions. Lots of them.

Washington Post reporter Ben Terris went to interview Schock at his office last month and found himself surrounded by deep-red walls, gold wall sconces, and pheasant feathers. The room's ornate decor had been based on that of the set of the popular PBS period drama, “Downton Abbey,” a woman who turned out to be Schock’s decorator told Terris.

Journalists gather outside the office of Representative Aaron Schock (R-IL) on Capitol Hill in Washington March 17, 2015. Schock is resigning from Congress, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said on Tuesday. Schock's resignation follows news reports that raised questions about his use of taxpayer dollars. He did not notify any House Republican leaders before making his decision, a House Republican aide said.REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

Terris’ story was funny, and widely shared, but certain aspects created suspicion. Like the fact that Schock’s dapper digs certainly must have far exceeded the House’s basic furniture and paintjob budget for new members. Or why Terris’ interest in the decorations sparked an inter-office crisis, ultimately costing him his interview with the congressman.

With Schock's most recent expenditures not yet available to the public, USA Today dug through earlier Congressional expense reports and found, before giving his office the Downton treatment, the Illinois Republican had spent over $100,000 of taxpayer money on previous office renovations that included hardwood floors, granite countertops and leather furniture.

Politico then decided to take a closer look at Schock’s notoriously extravagant spending habits. For most politicians, the campaign trail is lined with budget hotels (Even President Obama still stays at the Holiday Inn). But Schock prefers to stump in style. He regularly stays at some of the countries most exclusive — not to mention expensive — hotels and, Politico reported, has spent over $90,000 in campaign funds on private flights, usually traveling with a personal photographer in tow.

While not illegal, Politico noted that such exorbitant spending is, at the very least, unusual for a representative of Schock’s level — even if he is one of the Republican party’s top fundraisers. That same report also pointed out that Schock’s outsized fundraising — which his team pointed to in defending his expenses as necessary — had come under scrutiny in the past. In 2012, the Office of Congressional Ethics speculated that Schock had violated campaign finance law by helping a super PAC raise money beyond the legal limit.

As reporters continued to dig through Schock’s records and receipts, the congressman proceeded to mount his defense. In late February, Politico reported that Schock had hired two well-known D.C. defense attorneys and a pair of public relations operatives to tackle the onslaught of scrutiny which, by then, had grown to include questions about Schock’s personal Chevy Tahoe and a 2011 trip to London.

**In this file photo from Jan. 9, 2015, Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, left, walks with Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., as House Republicans head to a closed-door GOP strategy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015. Schock has hired top lawyers and public relations experts in the wake of recent questions surrounding his travel and entertainment expenses. Schock, a rising Republican star already facing an ethics inquiry, had spent taxpayer and campaign funds on flights aboard private planes owned by some of his key donors, an Associated Press review found. There have also been other expensive charges, including for a massage company and music concerts. Schock's high-flying lifestyle, combined with questions about expenses decorating his office in the style of the TV show "Downton Abbey," add to awkward perceptions on top of allegations he illegally solicited donations in 2012. The Office of Congressional Ethics said in a 2013 report that there was reason to believe Schock violated House rules by soliciting campaign contributions during a 2012 primary. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite/File)

Schock declined to comment on whether he personally covered the cost of the trip. He would not have been required to disclose the excursion if he did pay for it himself. But since, based on the itinerary obtained by Politico, he did not visit London on official government or political business, Schock would have had to receive the Ethics Committee’s permission and register the trip as a gift if paid for by someone else.

Schock did not disclose any gifts related to the London trip. However, it was later revealed that he was a guest at a number of lavish dinners, including some hosted at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace.

Amid what had now become a mounting scandal, on Feb. 27 Schock decided to put his trademark fundraising on hiatus. That same day, USA Today reported that, after the Washington Post story about his office, Schock had quietly reimbursed the government $35,000 for his elaborate decor, and paid $5,000 to the decorator, who told the Post she’d offered her services for free.

Less than a week later, Schock wrote another check to the U.S. Treasury, this time for $1,237: reimbursement for a private flight from Peoria, Illinois, to Chicago for a Bears game. The check was sent one day after the Chicago Sun-Times published a story about the taxpayer-funded excursion.

Which brings us to this week. Politico reports that on Monday, it reached out to Schock with questions about his mileage reimbursements. The publication had pieced together several public documents suggesting that, between 2010 and 2014, Schock billed the government and campaign for more than twice the amount of miles he actually put on his personal, campaign-funded Chevy Tahoe.

That same day, it was reported that the investigators with the Office of Congressional Ethics had started contacting members of Schock’s inner circle. The OCE does not have the power to subpoena lawmakers, but often conducts initial reviews of potential misconduct and then makes recommendations to the House Ethics Committee, which can formally investigate and penalize representatives.

The committee does not, however, investigate and punish former lawmakers, which is what Schock will be as of March 31. He might not want to fire those defense attorneys just yet, though, as his alleged misuse of public funds is still fair game for federal law enforcement.

Once freed from the “constant questions” that have been distracting him, Schock, who has been a politician pretty much since he graduated high school, might want to start looking for a job in the private sector. As a former lawmaker, Schock will still be eligible for taxpayer-funded benefits once he turns 62. But $18,500 per year is not nearly enough to sustain the lavish lifestyle he’s grown accustomed to, plus he has almost 30 years before it kicks in. He'll still have access to the House gym, though. Only now he'll have to pay.

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