About a month ago, Washington Post reporter Ben Terris got an email from one of his sources on Capitol Hill offering a tip. The tipster, who did not want to be identified, worked in the same congressional office building as Illinois Representative Aaron Schock and had noticed that the Republican congressman was doing some “really decadent” renovations to his office — he thought Terris should check it out.
Terris writes features and profiles for the paper’s style section — office décor might make for some nice details in the context of a larger story, but it didn’t strike him as worthy of investigation by itself. “I was like, eh, no thanks, that’s not the kind of stuff I do,” he says. Still, he decided to reach out to Schock’s spokesman Ben Cole for coffee. Since being elected at the tender age of 27, Schock had built a solid reputation for being a globe-trotting, Instagram-snapping, media-friendly lawmaker. Even without the Men’s Health cover or GQ spread, he seemed to be living a charmed life, even by the standards of a politician, and it was enough to establish him as one of the Hill’s more interesting personalities — in other words, a perennial media profile subject. Terris suggested to Cole that they meet at a congressional coffee shop, but Cole told him to come by the office. What happened next would lead to Cole losing his job and his boss going from one of the Republican party’s rising stars to the subject of a spending scandal that, nearly a month later, isn’t over. The saga would also become an object lesson in how Washington spending scandals are reported — or not. Thanks to Congress’s complex ethics rules and the general sense of moral compromise that pervades the capital, it can be difficult for journalists to sort out what’s kosher and what’s not.
As Terris recounts in his story, he showed up to the Downton Abbey–themed office, with it’s blood-red walls and gold leaf and pheasant feather sprays, and was offered a tour by its interior designer, who runs a company called EuroTrash LLC. When one of Schock’s staffers noticed Terris was taking photographs, it started a minor intra-office crisis. Schock’s staff tried, unsuccessfully, to demand he delete the photos, and when that failed, tried to get him to hold the piece until Schock could talk to him. When Schock refused, Terris wrote his bizarre little story about being denied an interview about an extravagantly decorated office.
“I tried to write as gleeful a story as I could about how image-obsessed D.C. is, and I thought all I was doing was writing a tiny little snippet of This Town,” says Terris, referring to Mark Leibovich’s book, which has become a sort of shorthand for the cultural absurdities of life in and among D.C.’s political classes. (For example: This is where I disclose that Terris is a friend of mine, because #ThisTown.) “And it turned into this three-week scandal that I literally never saw coming.”
But it didn’t look like an innocent case of D.C.’s self-obsession to everyone. Terris’s story appeared late Monday, February 2. By the next day, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal watchdog group that is often the first to the scene at any suggestion of congressional impropriety, filed a complaint with the House Office of Congressional Ethics, requesting an investigation into whether Schock broke House rules by accepting EuroTrash’s pro bono interior design work. By the end of Tuesday, Paul Singer, USA Today’s political editor, had written a story noting that Schock had previously spent tens of thousands of dollars on office renovations from his taxpayer-funded congressional account, including to companies that made leather furniture and granite counter tops. By Wednesday, ABC’s Jeff Zeleny posted a video in which Schock awkwardly defended the office with a cringe-worthy reference to Taylor Swift: “Haters are gonna hate.”
Then the story took an even weirder twist: By Thursday, Think Progress had unearthed Facebook posts in which Schock’s spokesman referred to “hood rats” and likened two black people outside his window to “animals” escaped from the “National Zoo.” (Cole would resign by the end of the day, but it wouldn’t stop a documentary filmmaker from popping out of the woodwork to reveal a never-aired documentary of Cole in his former life as a right-wing Southern Baptist preacher.) By Friday, the New York Times had a special report from Peoria in which the congressman and his constituents reflected on why he had become, in Schock’s words, a “punching bag” for the media and his opponents. By the following Monday, Politico had a “Schock and Awe” story detailing the congressman’s personal spending on gourmet restaurants and five-star resorts. Singer had another story revealing that he was spending huge amounts of money on travel: more than $100,000 in 2013, more than the senators representing the entire state of Illinois, and more than all but 11 members of Congress, many of whom represent large Western states. Then he reported that much of that money was being spent on non-certified chartered flights, in likely violation of ethics rules.
The story didn’t end there, and it’s still not over. By Valentine’s Day, Peoria residents were writing into the local paper calling for his resignation, and earlier this week, the Associated Press fleshed out the details of his spending using location data from Schock’s Instagram account.
This entire torrent of career-endangering stories might have been avoided if they hadn’t freaked out about the office. “Writing about somebody’s office is the least important thing I could imagine doing. It seemed so silly that my instinct was not to write about it at all in the first place,” Terris says. “It wasn’t until it became, in their words, ‘a crisis’ that I had to write about it, because it became funny.”
Singer had never looked into Schock’s spending before that, but he says the line in the piece where the decorator said she was volunteering her time “made my antennae pop up.” He sent a tweet out to his followers: “Question, ethics buffs: Can a lawmaker accept free services from an interior decorator?” Then he decided to go back and look at Schock’s past financial disclosures. “In the old records I found the hardwood floors, the leather furniture and the granite counter tops worth $100,000, and thought ‘okay, this is weird.’ That became a story about his lavish office spending. Those same records had all the charter flights listed – also weird, given how few House members fly charter. So then we had the story about how much he was spending on travel. And that led to the question ‘Who do these airplanes belong to …’ and now we think he might have broken the law. It really is basically ‘for the want of a nail a horse was lost …’” he says.
Other reporters actually had looked at Schock’s finances before but didn’t report them.“The irony of this whole thing is that the fact that he spent a lot of money on hotels and travel has been known among Republicans forever and it pissed them off,” says another reporter who is now working on the Schock story. “Once Ben had a great story by accident it gave reporters an opening to be like, he lives this lifestyle. It all kind of fit into the mold that Ben created. On its own a story that Aaron Schock spends a lot of money is not that interesting because he’s not in leadership. It would seem very random. No one had a hook until we discovered that he was working in a replica of Downton Abbey.”
Adam Smith, communications director for Public Campaign, a nonprofit working to reduce the role of special-interest spending in politics, has two explanations for why Schock (who declined a request for comment) went from a media favorite to one of its top targets. One is the difficulty in understanding Congress’s arcane and complex ethics rules. “It’s all super-complicated! I’m pretty well-versed in this stuff, but I still had to track down and confirm what the ethics violation would be, even though I knew it was … something. Same goes for our bullet-hole-filled campaign finance laws,” he says. When you see big spending stories blow up like this one, they’ve often originated in opposition research shops. It’s fair to ask: ‘Would we have seen that without a dedicated opponent looking for it?’”
He continues: “But I think the big thing, for me, is that reporters are cynical generally, and on money in politics in particular. Everyone’s schmoozing with lobbyists, everyone’s prostrating themselves in front of big donors, so what’s the big deal? They’ll say everyone’s corrupt, voters don’t care, politicians aren’t going to do anything, so why cover it? It’s all about the horse race — who’s picking up the most bundlers, who’s raising the most money.” Eventually, some other reporter might have come by and noticed the office, but if Schock and his staff hadn’t freaked out about it, it might have never raised alarm bells. Instead, on Tuesday, Politico reported that Schock was lawyering up to deal with the allegations made against him. Terris, meanwhile, got another tip in his inbox. “Ben, I enjoyed your recent article and the accompanying photos,” it read. “I was surprised to see the long tail pheasant feathers in a government office since I thought it was illegal to keep such feathers.” The plot thickens.