Seventh Circuit Buoys Corruption Case Against Ex-Congressman

CHICAGO (CN) – Questioning former Illinois U.S. Representative Aaron Schock’s separation of powers defense, a Seventh Circuit panel appeared likely Wednesday morning to allow the government’s corruption case against the disgraced politician to move forward.

Schock, the former U.S. representative for Illinois’s 18th congressional district from 2009 to 2015, 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.

But he abruptly resigned in 2015 after a Washington Post story reported that he had 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 free 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.

Schock spent $40,000 on redecorating his office and improperly sought reimbursement for $15,000 of those expenses, according to the government’s indictment.

But perhaps more seriously, the government also accuses the former representative of fraudulently seeking reimbursement for 150,000 more miles than he actually drove.

Schock 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 Wednesday morning before a Seventh Circuit panel 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.

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Wood was not convinced.

“Is it your view that the House can pass a rule that it can give each representative $1 million but that that representative does not need to report it on their tax return?” she asked Hatch.

Hatch acknowledged that such a rule would be impermissible because it would conflict with the Internal Revenue Code.

She also asked the attorney, “What point is there in reading House rules as requiring only partial honesty?” but Hatch declined to weigh in on the matter.

The three-judge panel appeared convinced that there was little ambiguity in the House’s mileage reimbursement rules, even if Schock had some wiggle room with regard to his request for reimbursement for furniture.

“There are some rules that are more solid,” Judge Wood said, giving the air a little poke with her pen, “like, don’t lie about your mileage. I can’t fathom what else it could possibly be,” she said, prompting a general chuckle from the bench.

Justice Department attorney William Glaser told the court that Schock has made much of the House rules and their proper interpretation, but he is being prosecuted under the laws concerning wire fraud.

“The question is not whether he violated the House rules,” Glaser said, “but to show materiality and intent – the fact that he was on notice he had to report his mileage accurately.”

U.S. Circuit Judges Frank Easterbrook and Joel Flaum also served on Wednesday’s panel.

The court is expected to issue a ruling in the matter within three months.

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