Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock resigned today following a steady drip of revelations about ethical improprieties with his congressional and campaign spending practices. The news investigations into Rep. Schock over recent weeks provide special insight into a number of research strategies and illustrate how public records can be used to show how a public official has problems with wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars. Here are the highlights:
Congressional Office Disbursements
On February 2nd, the Washington Post first reported that Rep. Schock's congressional office had been redecorated with opulent decor inspired by the style of British period drama "Downton Abbey", based on photographs and an impromptu interview with the decorator.
Congress members' spending on office furnishings is a matter of public record, published quarterly in the Statement of Disbursements report, the most recent report available online here, and prior reports are available online here back to July 2009. Older reports are available to review in print at the House's Legislative Resource Center, but have also helpfully been digitized online back to 1970 by the Boston Public Library.
While the "Downton Abbey"-style renovations were too recent to have been published in the most recent Statement of Disbursements report, on February 3rd, USA Today used past reports to show that Rep. Schock had previously used thousands of taxpayer dollars to decorate and furnish his office. As reported by USA Today:
In December 2009 he paid $7,400 to an Illinois design/build firm called KBL Design Center, and then another $21,000 to a hardwood floor company, a building contractor and company called Old World Granite and Marble that apparently makes high-end countertops. He then spent $6,600 on an Illinois painting contractor.
Two months later, Schock spent $79,061 on furniture purchases, including $5,123 from a company called Mulnix Industries that specializes in hardwood podiums.
Around the same time, Schock spent more than $4,000 with a fine-leather furniture company called Garrett Leather.
Instagram, FlightAware, and Campaign Finance Reports
On February 23rd, an Associated Press investigation identified at least a dozen private flights Rep. Schock took on planes owned by his campaign donors and paid for out of his taxpayer funded office budget or his campaign accounts. The AP's analysis used a novel cross-referencing of location data in photos posted to Rep. Schock's Instagram account with private airplane flight data made searchable on FlightAware, as well as referencing his campaign contributions and expenditures and office expenses. As reported by the AP:
The expenses highlight the relationships that lawmakers sometimes have with donors who fund their political ambitions, an unwelcome message for a congressman billed as a fresh face of the GOP. The AP identified at least one dozen flights worth more than $40,000 on donors' planes since mid-2011.
The AP tracked Schock's reliance on the aircraft partly through the congressman's penchant for uploading pictures and videos of himself to his Instagram account. The AP extracted location data associated with each image then correlated it with flight records showing airport stopovers and expenses later billed for air travel against Schock's office and campaign records.
Travel Disclosure Forms
On March 12th, the National Journal reported that Rep. Schock appeared to have improperly accepted travel expenses from an outside group for a travel companion on a trip to India (House rules only allow companion travel for staffers, spouses or children). Rep. Schock's was accompanied on the trip by his photographer, as had been documented on photos posted to his Instagram account. However, Rep. Schock failed to disclose this in his Travel Disclosure Form for the trip. Gift and Travel filings for House members are searchable online at the Clerk of the House's website.
Vehicle Mileage and Reimbursements
Rep. Schock's resignation announcement came within hours after reports by POLITICO and the Chicago Sun-Times concerning his reimbursements from campaign and taxpayer funds for personal vehicle mileage, suggesting that he had billed taxpayers for more miles than the vehicle had actually driven. As reported by POLITICO:
The congressman’s vehicle history was pieced together from dozens of pages of Illinois vehicle records.
When Schock transferred the SUV to an Illinois dealership in 2014, it had 81,860 miles on the odometer, the documents show. However, from January 2010 to the end of July 2014, he billed the federal government for 123,131 miles on his personal vehicle. During the same period, the Republican billed his “Schock for Congress” campaign account and GOP Generation Y Fund, his leadership political action committee, for an additional 49,388 miles.
Altogether, Schock sought reimbursement for 172,520 miles on his car, despite the fact that he signed documents that certified the vehicle traveled less than half that distance.
POLITICO's findings were likely assembled from a comparison of the odometer data recorded at the time of vehicle title transfer (information on researching that state by state available here), and a review of mileage reimbursements reported in Rep. Schock's campaign accounts and congressional office expenditures (mileage can be calculated using official reimbursement rates).
The Chicago Sun-Times report also covered how Rep. Schock's campaign committee paid for his SUV, but that the title was registered in his name.