Aaron Schock’s Brazil trip: The inside story

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WASHINGTON — In May 2014, then-Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., organized an eight-day trip to Brazil — paid for by Brazil’s government — where he conducted official business, and tacked on a visit to a beach resort with Rep. Jason Smith. R- Mo., and three staffers, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

A grand jury in Springfield is investigating how Schock spent taxpayer and government money as well as other travel and business dealings. The criminal investigation is moving forward even though Schock resigned from Congress on March 31.

Details of Schock’s Brazil trip, just one of many international swings he took while in Congress, are just now surfacing because the latest congressional personal financial reports covering 2014 were made public on Friday.

Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., one of four lawmakers on the Brazil trip, provided a full agenda of the visit to the Sun-Times and discussed it in an interview. Kelly has been granted an extension to file her 2014 financial disclosure.

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Smith and Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., disclosed the Brazil visit on their annual reports. Meehan and Kelly did not go to the beach.

Kelly attended official events and said she left after four days because of prior obligations in her 2nd Congressional District, which stretches from urban Chicago to rural Kankakee. Kelly staffer Mary Paleologos, who handles agriculture events in the district, also was on the trip.

The full trip — with an emphasis on agribusiness and agriculture — included official events in Sao Paulo, Fortaleza and Brasilia.

Photos examined by the Sun-Times show Schock, Smith and Schock staffers Mark Roman and Shea Ledford in Canoa Quebrada, a beach resort town about 100 miles from Fortaleza. Photographer Jonathon Link, who Schock put on his House payroll in September 2014, also was at Canoa Quebrada.

Kelly said Tuesday that Schock invited her on the trip in April 2014. It’s not known how Schock got the authority to recruit Kelly for the trip, which was officially considered a “cultural exchange.”

Lawmakers are allowed to accept trips paid for by foreign governments if the sponsoring nation is part of the State Department’s Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act. That act allows other nations to pay for lawmaker cultural exchanges if, according to the House Ethics Manual, they are “visits and interchanges between the United States and other countries of leaders, experts in fields of specialized knowledge or skill, and other influential or distinguished persons.”

Kelly and Schock became friends when he was a student at Bradley University in Peoria and she was on the board. They also served in the Illinois House together before both moved on to Congress.

With 1,800 farmers in her district, Kelly said Schock probably thought of asking her to Brazil because “the trip dealt with agriculture, and trade and commerce and all of that, I would be interested.”

Kelly left Brazil on May 14. She said she has not talked to Schock since he resigned.

Smith, one of Schock’s closest friends in Congress, said on his disclosure that the Brazil trip started in May 10 and ended on May 18 and that two days of that were at his own expense.

Unlike other privately paid trips for lawmakers, travel under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act is not subject to extensive disclosure. Smith’s office has not yet responded to a request for comment on the trip.

On his disclosure, Meehan said the trip ran from May 10 through May 17. His legislative director traveled with him.

Meehan spokesman John Elizandro said on Tuesday, “Meehan was invited to travel because of his involvement with the Congressional Brazil Caucus, which he now chairs. There is strong Brazilian investment in our district, and he’s very interested in opportunities for economic growth through expanded trade and ties with Brazil. This trip was an opportunity to build relationships with a number of Brazilian government and economic development officials that he’s maintained since. In fact, just today, he kicked off a panel discussion here on the Hill on opportunities for bilateral cooperation between Brazil and the United States.”

A spokesman for the Brazil embassy did not reply to a request for comment.

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