WASHINGTON — For the first time, a top former staffer to ex-Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., is telling the story, from his unique perspective, of Schock’s downfall and the impact it had on the unraveling of his own career.
“I was about as big collateral damage as there could be,” said Ben Cole in one of series of interviews about his tenure as Schock’s senior adviser and communications chief.
Cole is talking to me because he wants to explain the circumstances of his own resignation and to make things right with people he might have hurt.
His story also helps fill in some missing parts of the Schock saga.
A federal grand jury in downstate Springfield has been hearing testimony for months about Schock’s spending of government and campaign money and other business dealings.
Schock resigned from Congress on March 31, just as the investigation was heating up.
Cole’s resume is unusual for a Capitol Hill staffer.
Cole, 39, is an ordained Southern Baptist pastor who prefers politics to the pulpit.
He was born in the East Texas town of Longview. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, going on to complete his doctoral coursework from Baylor University, a Baptist school in Texas.
Schock hired him in March 2014. Cole was eager to work for the rising star from Peoria, a member of the Ways and Means Committee. Schock was a prodigious fundraiser and his telegenic, youthful appearance was seen as a plus in a party with older, stodgy leaders.
Late last year, Schock moved to a new office and asked an interior designer from his central Illinois congressional district to redo his suite in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Cole said that one day in January, he was with Schock in the newly painted fire-engine red office, where some decorative items were already in place.
Cole recalled that Schock asked him what he thought of the work in progress.
Cole said he told him, “This looks like Liberace’s drawing room. It’s way overdone, and I don’t think this is good.”
The red office, Cole thought, was going to raise “all the wrong kinds of questions. It’s going to reinforce all the narratives that Aaron wishes would go away.”
RELATED: Prosecutors, Schock fight over documents request Schock to feds on leak probe: Put up or shut up Feds raid Schock’s downstate campaign office; another staffer gets subpoena Schock pays government back for auto mileage Aaron Schock resigning from Congress Aaron Schock pays back costs for ‘Downton Abbey’ office decor
For the public, the date of the beginning of the end for Schock is Feb. 2, when the Washington Post broke the Schock “Downton Abbey” office story. Reporter Ben Terris made Cole’s efforts to try to quash the article part of his piece.
The backstory started a few weeks earlier.
As the profile of Schock, 34, was growing, Cole said he started having concerns.
Schock was becoming famous — but not for his legislative work. He was constantly posting on Instagram stunning pictures of himself on various adventures.
Cole said he thought the brand Schock was cultivating was a “disservice to Aaron’s seriousness, to his intelligence, to his political savvy and acumen.”
Cole said he started to worry about a potential problem — more significant than Schock’s globetrotting image — as the gaudy office furnishings were delivered in January.
Cole suspected, correctly as it turned out, that the outlandish office would inspire reporters to start asking questions about costs and payments for the remodeling.
“I thought, as soon as someone writes a story about this office, somebody is going to be asking, ‘Well, how else does he spend money?’ ”
Cole said he saw it as his job to get ahead of the potential stories by running down the facts himself.
By mid-January, Cole said he had scrutinized Schock’s Federal Election Commission campaign reports and disbursements from the allowance all House members get to run their offices.
After plowing through the numbers, Cole concluded that Schock had problems with mileage claims and other spending.
He did not think Schock had done anything wrong.
Cole thought it was due to “staff incompetence” or maybe “just some sloppiness, just carelessness” by staffers handling Schock’s congressional and campaign finances.
Cole concluded that the staffers managing Schock’s taxpayer and political funds were inept and should be replaced.
“At no time while I was working for Aaron did I ever think that he demonstrated a propensity or an inclination to defraud donors or taxpayers,” Cole said.
“So I was preparing to go to Aaron with a lot of concerns,” he said.
The meeting never happened.
Three days after the Washington Post story, screen shots of several race-related comments Cole made on Facebook in 2013 surfaced on the liberal website ThinkProgress, a publication of the Democrat-allied Center for American Progress.
Cole immediately resigned.
Some of his posts were about criminal activity outside his apartment.
“What seemed funny at the time” doesn’t “seem funny afterwards,” Cole said.
Cole said it was “very painful” and “hurtful” to be associated with racism, especially given his pastoral background and close personal relationships with African-Americans.
Cole told me multiple times how much he regrets what he wrote on Facebook.
“I’m dismayed that I would have exercised such poor judgment and even jeopardized friendships and relationships [with people] who would otherwise have had no reason to question my commitment to racial justice,” he said.
Cole also wants to get out that he is not the fumbling PR guy who screwed up with the Post.
Cole told me he only wanted to stall the Washington Post piece until he talked to Schock, to warn him that public records — documents any reporter could easily find online — raised serious questions.
But in the rush to resign on Feb. 5, Cole never got a chance “to tell him all of my concerns” about what he learned from Schock’s financial disclosures.
Cole thought that with a little time, “I could work to mitigate any negative fallout, correct errors that had been made and set the office on a better footing.”
On March 19, two federal agents called Cole. “They said, ‘We’d like to meet with you tonight.’ ”
Cole was at the Capitol Hill house of a friend. About 15 minutes later, the agents showed up.
“They asked me questions. I answered them truthfully,” Cole said. Then “they pulled the subpoena out.”
On May 6, under a subpoena, Cole was in Springfield to testify before the Schock grand jury.
Cole continues to cooperate with federal investigators. He remains in Washington to repair relationships that may have been broken.