SPRINGFIELD — The recent federal charges detailing the lavish lifestyle former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock allegedly lived at taxpayer expense reinforces doubts held by many voters that public servants are primarily there to serve themselves.
That's the opinion of Lane Crothers, professor of politics and government at Illinois State University.
"It's clear there's a significant portion of the population that has this cynical attitude. When something like this happens, it reconfirms that attitude. We're particularly prone to do this with politics," said Crothers.
A 24-count indictment handed down this month by a grand jury in Springfield spells out the astonishing details of how the government believes the once up-and-coming Republican congressman dipped into House and campaign funds for personal travel, outings and expensive renovations for his office.
He also filed false tax returns that failed to reflect additional income he received from the resale of Super Bowl and World Series tickets purchased with campaign funds, contend the charges.
In the first of 74 paragraphs explaining how the 35-year-old Peoria native executed his alleged scheme to defraud the government and taxpayers, U.S. Attorney James Lewis notes that Schock graduated from Bradley University with a degree in finance, an irony for the former public official who faces 20 years in prison on a majority of the 24 counts, if convicted.
The negative sentiments some may hold about the charges leveled against the lawmaker should be tempered by the positive note that another federal agency, the U.S. Attorney's office, exposed the accusations, said Crothers.
McLean County Republican Party Chairman Chuck Erickson said he hopes people don't lose confidence in their public officials in light of the case against Schock, who represented the 18th Congressional District that includes much of Central Illinois, including part of the Twin Cities.
"I hope we can have faith in what they do. I think public officials should be held to a higher standard. They need to manage and be good stewards of the money because it's the people's money," said Erickson.
Schock has blamed his legal woes on what he perceives as a broken federal justice system.
One of his lawyers, George Terwilliger, said after the indictments were returned that many of the instances singled out in the federal charges were administrative issues that many members of Congress grapple with.
He further charged in an earlier written statement that the charges were a "culmination of an effort to find something, anything, to take down Aaron Schock."
But in a statement on the indictments, Lewis said Schock took advantage of his office and taxpayers.
"Mr. Schock held public office at the time of the alleged offenses, but public office does not exempt him or anyone else from accountability for alleged intentional misuse of public funds and campaign funds," said Lewis.
Taxpayers in Normal may have contributed to one of Schock's questionable income streams.
Starting in 2011, Schock hosted "fly-in" events where local constituents and public officials came to Washington, D.C. at their expense to meet with the congressman and other national leaders.
According to a wire fraud indictment, Schock pocketed $11,000 in excess registration fees from a 2014 event that was attended by Normal Council member Scott Preston.
Normal paid about $1,800 for Preston to attend the 2014 event with Schock. Records from the trip do not include an agenda or a specific breakdown to show how much the town paid for registration fees for Preston, whose travel spending is currently under review by the Illinois Appellate Prosecutor's office.
After questions were raised about Preston's travel expenses, the Normal City Council adopted tighter travel policies that prohibit practices fraught with the potential for abuse, such as allowing officials to submit a credit card statement to substantiate travel expenses.
On the county level, the McLean County Board also experienced an unforeseen change in leadership in January after the indictment of board Chairman Matt Sorensen on federal wire fraud charges. Although the charges are unrelated to the public office Sorensen held for more than 20 years, the accusations caught local officials off guard.
Sorensen pleaded guilty Nov. 2 to a single count of wire fraud accusing him of submitting a false invoice to a consulting firm for work that was never performed for his former employer, State Farm.
A recommendation from federal prosecutors calls for 21 to 27 months in prison when he is sentenced March 2 in Chicago. Sorensen also is eligible for probation on the charge, which carries a possible 20-year term without a plea agreement.