The ink is barely dry on the second printing of Tom Gradel and Dick Simpson’s new book, “Corrupt Illinois,” and already its litany of scandals is out of date — the flameout of Congressman Aaron Schock setting new land speed records for political downfalls.
It was destined to be so, I would argue, certainly that any compendium of Illinois political monkey business would be quickly overtaken by new scandals —and also that the precocious 33-year-old Peoria congressman was destined for a crash as spectacular as his rise.
I don’t claim to be an expert on Schock, who has not yet been charged with any wrongdoing. I met him only once, at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, where he entertained a small group of Sun-Times reporters over lunch with what you might call the Aaron Schock story.
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It was a memorable encounter, just the same, as Schock recounted how he had once operated a ticket brokerage business out of his home, leasing his neighbor’s phone lines when his own proved insufficient to handle his volume of customers.
What’s memorable about that, you say? Well, Schock said he was just a middle school student at the time.
During high school, while other kids were doing what high school students do, Schock said he was working after class as the bookkeeper at a local gravel pit and investing his profits in the stock market.
At age 18, he would buy 110 acres of farmland with plans to operate his own gravel business, later unloading it on the Greater Peoria Sanitary District.
And when the local school board refused to let him graduate early from high school, he ran for the school board, got knocked off the ballot and won anyway as a write-in candidate with the help of what he said was a small army of senior citizen volunteers.
From there, he was off to become the youngest member of the IllinoisHouse at 24, then the youngest member of the U.S. House, after he was elected in 2008.And by that Tampa convention already had the best-exposed abs in Washington, thanks to Men’s Health magazine.
The story itself was amazing, but more striking than the narrative was the intensity that burned in Schock’s eyes —like nobody I’d ever met.
You didn’t need to spend more than five minutes with him to realize he harbored ambitions to keep climbing — governor, senator, president of the United States.
That’s obviously not unusual in a Washington politician, but Schock was one of those who could make you believe it would happen — if he didn’t trip over his own hubris and entrepreneurial instincts.
That outcome is now clearly true, whether the Schock investigations stop here or continue. Some of the reports by the Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet and other news organizations certainly suggest the possibility of improper use of taxpayer money.
I do have some experience with that topic, having worked many years ago with other reporters on the Sun-Times’ investigation of legendary Chicago Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, who was indicted and convicted.Like Schock, Rostenkowski was also accused of misusing his office expense allowance.
Back then, the only public record of House members’ expenditures were these big fat books printed quarterly that you could find only in the public library.
Congress had exempted itself from the Freedom of Information Act, so we couldn’t get the backup documentation for any of the expenses.
Guess what? The only thing that’s changed in all these years is that those quarterly reports are now available online. There’s still no mechanism to allow the public to dig deeper.
And you wonder why these scandals go unnoticed until some political opponent or nosy reporter —or combination thereof — digs them out.
“Nobody is really looking at these things and saying: This is outrageous,” observed Gradel, longtime collaborator with Simpson, a University of Illinois-Chicago professor and former Chicago alderman who once ran against Rostenkowski.
Gradel was referring both to official spending and political campaign spending, the two pots that Schock is alleged to have used to prop up a high-flying lifestyle.
Having chronicled how hundreds of Illinois politicians either ran afoul of the law or skirted prosecution for their shady dealings, Gradel theorizes those politicians “figure they can get away with it because they know other people that got away with it.”
Maybe we should introduce them to more of those who didn’t get away with it — a Scared Straight program for elected officials.
If not the first to offer it, Aaron Schock could be the youngest.