PEORIA — Less than a day after the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., billed taxpayers for a private plane ride to Chicago for a Bears game, on Monday he repaid the government $1,237 for the trip.
A Schock spokesman said in a statement, “The congressman has reimbursed the U.S. Treasury by sending a check today for $1,237.00 to cover the Chicago trip. His team will continue their thorough review of his office procedures.”
With the latest check, Schock in the past weeks has paid $41,237 back to the U.S. Treasury to cover expenses billed to taxpayers. The bulk of the money was to cover costs for the redecoration of his “Downton Abby” House office in Washington.
In each case – the office redecoration and the Chicago charter flight – Schock wrote the checks only once stories raised questions about the spending.
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Schock’s use of taxpayer and political funds has come under enormous scrutiny triggered by the “Downton Abbey” office makeover as his lavish spending raises legal and ethical questions.
Schock’s spokesmen declined to comment on the Sun-Times report that an examination of House disbursement records and campaign finance reports suggests that Schock used taxpayer money to help underwrite a September trip to New York. Those records show Schock collected $10,053 from the government in September for “travel subsistence” from Sept. 26 through Sept. 29.
Schock scrambled to pay for the flight to the Bears game on a small business jet to contain the damage stemming from using taxpayer money for personal purposes, a potential serious violation of — at the least — House ethics rules.
Those House rules clearly state that money members get to run their House offices can be spent only on official business.
The newest official House disbursement records show a November payment of $10,802 to pilot Keith Siilats for “commercial transportation.”
Siilats told me in an interview on Sunday that he was booked to fly Schock from Manassas, Virginia, to Peoria on Friday, Nov. 14, with a return that Monday.
Schock on that Saturday asked Siilats to fly him and four guests — one of them his district director, Dayne LaHood — on Sunday to Midway Airport so they could attend the Bears-Viking game. Siilats told me he also went to the game and then flew the group home after dinner at a restaurant.
Siilats also told me in that interview that he charges $1,700-an-hour, not counting landing fees. Schock’s spokesmen did not explain how the $1,237 figure was computed. Last minute commercial round-trip air fares for five people from Peoria would cost much more.
Schock’s spokesman also declined to state who paid for the Bears tickets.
Private planes and Schock
One of the most scrutinized areas of Schock’s spending is over his use of private aircraft. He pays for those charters out of two main buckets: either from taxpayer money that is part of the allowance all House members get and from his various political funds.
A Sun-Times examination of House disbursements of the Illinois delegation shows that Schock stands alone when it comes to booking private planes at taxpayer expense. In addition to the $10,802 for Siilats, in the last quarter of 2014 alone, Schock also billed taxpayers $2,269 for an air charter company in Peoria.
Obviously, Illinois lawmakers who live in the Chicago area have access to many flights to the Washington area and aren’t even tempted on this front.
Schock represents the sprawling 18th Congressional District, which touches part of Peoria, Bloomington and Springfield and spreads to the Mississippi River. But he is not the only Illinois lawmaker with a district that’s geographically stretched.
Two downstate lawmakers whose districts are near Schock in central Illinois are Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., and Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill. In fact, Bustos and Schock both represent parts of Peoria.
Neither Bustos nor Davis has used taxpayer money to charter planes. Both of them come from competitive districts and have had to fight to get elected and re-elected. They probably would have been clobbered by their rivals if official records showed disbursements for private aircraft — even in the line of duty.
Schock’s boldness may stem in part from having a safe seat in a solid Republican district and being fairly immune, until now, from anyone taking a hard look.
In the meantime, with more revelations likely about spending, Schock has had to curtail his fundraising and public and television appearances.
I’ve talked to supporters and friends who are disappointed in him.
“It is without a doubt damaging; the question is how damaging,” said Josh Ryan, an assistant professor of political science at Bradley University in Peoria.
“There is no doubt that Aaron wants higher office,” Ryan said. “It is very, very clear to anyone who has interacted with him in the district. It is damaging that way and it could expose him to a primary challenge. Not likely, but this sort of thing doesn’t help.”