Representative Aaron Schock’s display of pheasant feathers in his Downton Abbey–inspired Washington office was the most startling sign that the Illinois Republican dwells on the far side of the gulf between the governed and their leaders. Anyone can slap some dark-red paint on his walls and hang portraits of presidents in front of them. But that bucket overflowing with pheasant feathers, oy.
Schock’s garish arrangement, revealed in February by the Washington Post, has become an invitation to examine his Capitol high life. It is not going well. Schock’s reaction to the criticism of his taxpayer-financed office decorations was a non-sequitur “haters are gonna hate.” A 21st-century way of declaring, “Let them eat cake.”
Those feathers set reporters on the trail of Schock’s descent into miasmas of freeloading on the public and his campaign contributors. Schock, whose stripped-to-the-waist 2011 Men’s Health magazine cover photo revealed a narcissism that never rests, is having a bad time of his public examination.
“I’m just not happy having strangers digging around my panties drawer, honey,” reluctant Hollywood legend Ava Gardner told a potential autobiography ghostwriter in the 1980s. It’s the deal the famous make, however, for attention and the privileges that accompany them. The public will extract its price.
Public figures in Illinois never want the Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet poking into their panties drawer. You just don’t. She will find things. It did not take long after the Post’s photos of Schock’s over-the-top office space for Sweet to discover that Schock, 33, misused public funds to pay for a private plane flight last fall from his hometown of Peoria to Chicago for a Bears–Vikings game.
This transgression is another reminder that our leaders use the private planes of supporters or courtiers to avoid the aggravation they impose on passengers who travel in herds on commercial flights. Voluble New Jersey governor Chris Christie has used his recent friendship Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to cadge free flights and tickets to playoff games this winter. Former Connecticut Republican governor John G. Rowland went to jail ten years ago for getting private plane flights in exchange providing for airport tax credits.
A sense of entitlement in pursuit of lofty privilege continues to cause Schock trouble. Sweet revealed this week that last fall Schock and ten staffers spent a luxurious weekend in New York attending the Global Citizen Festival in conjunction with a visit by Indian prime minister Narenda Modi.
The ten staffers, Sweet wrote, had little government work to do, though taxpayers picked up their tab for travel and accommodations at the New York Palace. It was Schock’s misfortune that Sweet was also at that hotel that weekend and had some first-hand knowledge of the trip. Records revealed that Schock campaign committees paid $554.15 for lunch in the restaurant at the swank Bergdorf Goodman store on Fifth Avenue.
Wait, there’s more. Catering for an event was provided by fashionable Mercer Kitchen for $1,272.84. You can expect Schock, whose campaign-finance reports have not been models of accuracy, to be pressed for details.
Campaign contributions can become a source of grief for grabby politicians who refuse to obey even the loose rules they operate under. Schock’s former Illinois colleague Jesse Jackson, Jr. resigned his seat in Congress after federal law enforcement investigators unearthed $750,000 in pilfered campaign funds. Jackson used the campaign contributions for, among other things, a $40,000 Rolex watch and two mounted elk heads. They do live in another world from you and me.
Gordon Fox, who a year ago resigned as Rhode Island’s powerful speaker of the house, pleaded guilty in March to taking bribes and stealing $108,000 in campaign contributions. He spent some of the money at Tiffany & Co., which calls itself “the world’s premier jeweler.”
Politicians are never very clever about these things. They surround themselves with lickspittles who would not dare mention their excesses and think no one else will notice the elk mounted in the living room or the best seats at the game.
While Schock takes turn on the griddle of public scrutiny he may learn that one day you’re a peacock, the next a feather duster.
— Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and former state legislator in Connecticut. He has been a columnist with the Hartford Courant for over a decade and played key roles uncovering scandals involving then-senator Chris Dodd (D) and then-governor John Rowland (R). He can be reached at email@example.com.