CHICAGO (CN) – The Seventh Circuit rejected former Illinois U.S. Representative Aaron Schock’s separation of powers defense in the government’s corruption case against the disgraced politician, allowing the case to move forward.
“Neither the separation of powers generally, nor the [Constitution’s] Rulemaking Clause in particular, establishes a personal immunity from prosecution or trial. The separation of powers is about the allocation of authority among the branches of the federal government. It is an institutional doctrine rather than a personal one,” U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote in a 10-page ruling issued Wednesday.
Schock, the former U.S. representative for Illinois’s 18th congressional district from 2009 to 2015, was indicted by a grand jury for filing false claims for reimbursement for his travel and office furnishings, and for filing false federal income tax returns.
He allegedly spent $40,000 on redecorating his office and improperly sought reimbursement for $15,000 of those expenses. Schock is also accused of fraudulently seeking reimbursement for 150,000 more miles than he actually drove.
Schock was the youngest member of Congress when he first took his seat at age 27 and was seen as a rising star in the Republican Party until he abruptly resigned in 2015, when the Washington Post reported that he redecorated his congressional offices to model them off the luxurious aristocratic home portrayed in the BBC drama “Downton Abbey.”
New members of Congress are entitled to a free new paint job, but there are a limited number of colors available, so offices on Capitol Hill are invariably painted beige, eggshell, light blue or light yellow.
Looking to stand out, Schock accepted the services of a decorator who painted his rooms deep red with white trim. The redecorated offices featured a gold-colored wall sconce with black candles, a display of pheasant feathers, a Federal-style bull’s eye mirror with an eagle on top, and a $5,000 chandelier.
He also allegedly requested reimbursement for 170,000 miles driving on his personal Chevy Tahoe between 2010 and 2014, but when he transferred that car back to the dealer in mid-2014, he reported that it had only been driven 80,000 miles. Similarly, the odometer of his previous vehicle showed that he had driven fewer miles on it than the total miles he sought reimbursement for from the government.
Schock’s defense claims the government is basing its prosecution on his alleged violations of the rules of the House of Representatives in an unconstitutional breach of the separation of powers doctrine.
Many of the House’s rules regarding reimbursements for furnishings are ambiguous. The handbook, for example, expressly lists rugs as both non-reimbursable furniture and a reimbursable decoration.
Schock’s attorney Benjamin Hatch with McGuire Woods argued before a Seventh Circuit panel in April that allowing a federal judge to interpret the House’s rules will essentially allow the judicial branch to decide how the legislative branch should govern its members.
However, the Chicago-based appeals court unanimously rejected Schock’s pretrial appeal Wednesday and refused to throw out the corruption charges against him.
“The foundation for Schock’s argument—the proposition that if Body A has sole power to make a rule, then Body A has sole power to interpret that rule—does not represent established doctrine,” Judge Easterbrook wrote. “Microsoft Corporation has the sole power to establish rules about how much its employees will be reimbursed for travel expenses, but no one thinks that this prevents a criminal prosecution of persons who submit fraudulent claims for reimbursement or fail to pay tax on the difference between their actual expenses and the amount they receive from Microsoft.”
Easterbrook continued, “If Schock is convicted, he may assert his Rulemaking Clause arguments on appeal from the final decision. Similarly, he may argue that the Rule of Lenity prevents conviction if the House rules about reimbursement are genuinely ambiguous as applied to his situation.”
One of Schock’s McGuire Woods attorneys, George J. Terwilliger III, said he was disappointed by the ruling.
“The ruling does not have any impact on the fact that the indictment is founded upon prosecutors’ after-the-fact interpretation of reimbursement rules established and administered by Congress,” he said in a statement. “As we continue to contend in court, the charges are the result of a determination to indict in spite of the true facts, not because of them. We are confident justice will ultimately prevail in a case that has unnecessarily now dragged on for more than two years at significant taxpayer expense.”
Department of Justice spokesperson Nicole Navas Oxman declined to comment.