Currently under federal investigation for his use (and abuse) of taxpayer money, former Congressman Aaron Schock has been hard to find since he announced his resignation this year. His Twitter has been silent since May 1, he hasn’t posted to Facebook since the middle of March, and his once-popular Instagram account, boasting nearly 17,000 followers, was abruptly switched to private around the same time.
It’s been a dramatic turn for the 34-year-old Illinois Republican, whose visage (and physique) not so long ago graced television screens and the covers of fitness magazines, once lauded for his ability to speak to the Millennial generation through harnessing social media.
No doubt much of the attention Schock received from prying cameras owed to his youth (elected at 27, he was the youngest member of the House) and good looks. But Schock’s unusually high public visibility was something he had himself carefully crafted. His life on Capitol Hill had become a movie, with Schock in the starring role. Along the way, Schock recruited a supporting cast of aides and fellow congressmen. He spent lavishly on sets (office furniture and décor) and exotic scenery (overseas trips). And to record and broadcast the production, he retained a loyal crew of photographers.
One such shutterbug to come under government scrutiny is the Dallas-based wedding photographer Jonathon Link, whom Schock brought onto his congressional payroll last September with a salary amounting to $70,000 annually (in addition to about $900 per month from a campaign account). Having a personal photographer on staff is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, in the annals of congressional history.
“While I have seen members of Congress use staff to take pictures and video for their website and newsletters, I've never seen one use a precious staff slot on someone who did ONLY those functions,” Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute and a 17-year Capitol Hill veteran, wrote in an email. “The only federal elected official who I know who has a photographer is the President.”
However ethically dubious, hiring a professional photographer with taxpayer funds is not illegal. But Schock’s paying Link with monies from both his congressional and campaign accounts meant that a blurring of the lines between official government work and electioneering was inevitable. There is at least one questionable expense related to Link, a payment last November 18 for $29,021.44 under the vague category of “web development hosting, email and related services.” Link has been subpoenaed by federal investigators and did not respond to an email seeking comment, nor did Schock.
Link traveled to India with Schock in August of 2014, after which he produced the video below, in which Schock appears to be campaigning for president of the United States, if not United Nations Secretary General. Link’s travel with Schock may have violated House rules, since his expenses were paid for by a private organization and Link did not join the congressman’s staff until the following month (House rules only allow private groups to fund a companion’s travel expenses if that guest is a staff member, spouse or child.) Members may seek a waiver from the Ethics Committee, but as first reported by National Journal, Schock never reported Link’s travel.
So good of a photographer was Link that Schock was willing to loan him out to at least one fellow Republican, former congressman Bobby Schilling, who ran last year to regain his old seat in a district adjoining Schock’s.
According to a source familiar with Schilling’s campaign, Link shot and edited this campaign advertisement. Schock ought to have listed the use of Link’s services as an in-kind contribution, yet there is no record of his having done so. Schilling did not respond to a Daily Beast inquiry.
Over the course of his congressional career, according to Federal Election Commission filings, Schock spent nearly $40,000 of campaign money on photography-related expenses, employing over a dozen different photographers. This is a fair amount for a congressman in one of the safest Republican seats in the country, who, thanks to his never having to worry about re-election, could emerge as one of the top elected GOP fundraisers for fellow Republican officials.
A perusal of his congressional disbursements indicates that Schock may have spent over $20,000 in public money for a series of very pricy photo-ops with former First Lady Laura Bush. On September 16, 2010, he spent $17,016 from his congressional account on an outfit called Tall City State and Cinema. Three days earlier, Schock had held a fundraiser with Bush at the home of Doug Oberhelman, the CEO of Caterpillar, who attended last year’s State of the Union address as Schock’s guest. Earlier the same day, Schock held an event with Bush to celebrate his “Summer Reading Program” for local schoolchildren; disbursement records show that he paid $4,700 to a video production company called Shatterglass Studios to film it. According to Brett Hays, co-owner of Shatterglass, the company shot raw footage of the event and gave it to Schock.
Crucial to any successful movie or television show are costumes and scenery, and here, Schock spared no expense. In 2011, he hired Jeanie Etchart, who as a staffer on the 2008 John McCain presidential campaign racked up $14,000 worth of clothing purchases for Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Having frequented stores such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nordstrom on behalf of the former Alaska governor, she certainly possessed the sartorial skills valued by the fashion-conscious congressman. Previous stories have reported Schock’s spending tens of thousands of dollars on office furniture; The Daily Beast found that, in 2010 and 2012, he spent a combined $7,470.44 on a single company—Junction Gallery of Peoria—for picture framing.
Regardless of its potential illegality, maintaining and disseminating Schock’s public image was an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. (A replica of a lectern replete with a faux presidential seal, for instance, set the taxpayer back $5,000). Like most reality series, however, The Aaron Schock Show’s ratings eventually took a nosedive. Unfortunately for the disgraced ex-congressman, what started out as The Amazing Race could end up as a bad episode of OZ.
— Alexa Corse contributed to this report.