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Rep. Aaron Schock’s staffer warned that private plane flights may be illegal

WASHINGTON — A staffer for then Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., who flew with the lawmaker on a jet owned by a corporation, later warned Schock’s chief of staff that the flight may have violated federal laws and House ethics rules, the Sun-Times has learned.

The revelation comes in an affidavit filed with federal investigators by Benjamin Stroud Cole, a former senior adviser to the Peoria lawmaker who is now the subject of a federal criminal probe. Schock resigned from Congress on March 31.

Cole and Schock’s chief of staff, Mark Roman, were among those who have testified before a federal grand jury in Springfield, the Sun-Times has reported. The grand jury meets again next week.

While in Springfield, Cole said in the affidavit, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass “questioned me concerning private air travel for official and campaign purposes” during his employment with Schock.

Cole submitted the affidavit “to provide clarifying details and additional information as requested by federal investigators during and after my testimony before the grand jury.”

The grand jury is investigating Schock’s relationships with his very best donors as well as Schock’s use of private planes.

Under federal law, House rules and Federal Election Commission regulations, lawmakers usually cannot accept rides on non-commercial corporate jets for campaign or official travel. Lawmakers, with some minor low-dollar exceptions, cannot take gifts. Lawmakers have to pay for a private plane ride, based on the normal charter rates, if the trip is for official business.

In April 2014, Cole asked Schock’s executive assistant, Sarah Rogers, to make travel arrangements for a trip to Schock’s central Illinois 18th congressional district. Rogers was the staffer who handled travel and reimbursement requests.

Cole, who handled legislative strategy and communications for Schock, was told by Rogers he would be flying back to the district on a private plane with Schock, departing from Dulles International and landing in Peoria.

Roman and Cole met at the St. Regis Hotel, down the street from the White House, on the morning of April 11 for “private transport” to Dulles. At the hotel, Roman told Cole that Schock would be traveling separately to Dulles.

In the St. Regis lobby, Roman and Cole were joined by Michael Stone, the president and chief operating office of RLI and Mt. Hawley Insurance companies, corporations based in Peoria.

Over the course of his career, Schock has received $53,050 in campaign contributions from individuals employed by RLI, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics website, OpenSecrets.org.

Schock, Stone, Roman and Cole flew on a private jet – Cole called it the “RLI Corp. Flight” in his affidavit – to Peoria. No payments are noted in government or campaign records.

On April 15, Cole said Schock and top political staffer, Karen McDonald, met at the private aviation terminal at the Peoria Airport and boarded a private jet, flying to the Quincy Airport.

Cole said it was his “understanding” that Schock and McDonald later flew to an event in South Dakota for Rep. Kristi Noem.

On April 16, 2014, Cole returned to Washington, where he is based, on a United flight.

Almost a year later, on Feb. 2 the Washington Post published a story about Schock’s lavish “Downton Abbey” office, triggering investigations by the Sun-Times and other news outlets about Schock’s spending of taxpayer and campaign funds.

“At some point in late February or early March 2015, I called Mr. Roman to tell him that I was concerned our travel on the RLI Corp. Flight may have violated federal election laws, congressional ethics rules or both,” according to the affidavit.

Roman told Cole he would follow up to determine if the RLI flight has been “properly accounted and reimbursed.”

Schock’s resignation from Congress on March 31 did not affect the investigation. Rogers informed the House of Representatives she received a subpoena from federal investigators.

Under House rules, Schock’s 18th Congressional District office staffers continue to be employed, with the operation run under the supervision of the House clerk. That arrangement continues until a new lawmaker is elected and sworn-in later this year.