Nothing spoils a good outrage like an intrusion of facts.
Outrage boiled up in news and social networks once again after the dropping of a federal charges against former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, a Peoria Republican, became official.
Some observers fumed that he received an undeserved pass for committing financial crimes in office. Faster than you could say “white privilege,” speculation welled up that Schock caught that break because he’s white.
“This one truly is a shocker,” tweeted Chicago-based political consultant David Axelrod. “Didn’t Jesse Jackson Jr. go to prison for something similar? Why did ex-Rep. Schock get this sweet deal?”
Jackson, a Chicago Democrat, served about 23 months in prison while Schock is going to walk free.
“I cannot even wrap my head around this,” tweeted Patti Blagojevich, wife of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, another Chicago Democrat, who is currently seven years into a 14-year federal prison sentence for crimes in office. “Six months of probation vs. 14 years for Rod. Where is the outrage?”
This is what happens when a state gets, perhaps, more than its share of public servants doing time for corruption in office. It’s easy to make comparisons even when there are big enough differences between the cases to blur the lines of racial or partisan inequities.
I, too, soared easily into high dudgeon when Schock’s suspiciously sweet deal was announced last spring. But, alas, my outrage lost a bit of altitude as I made a closer look.
First, there’s a big difference between the levels of offense in these cases. Schock, once a rising star in the Republican galaxy, was hit with a 24-count indictment in 2016. Charges ranged from wire fraud to filing false tax returns and theft of government funds. Two counts were dropped, but he was set to go to trial in June.
The details of Schock’s flamboyant handling of taxpayer money and campaign funds were jaw-dropping. They included, most infamously, lavishly decorating his congressional office to look like the dining room from “Downton Abbey.” Others included fancy five-star hotel stays and inflated mileage reimbursement claims.
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Jackson’s case was jaw-dropping too. It involved hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign money spent on such luxury items as fur capes, a “holistic retreat” in Martha’s Vineyard and two moose heads, one of which he proudly showed me and other visitors in his office.
But, as Jackson pointed out in a remarkably resentment-free (except maybe a hint) Facebook post after Schock’s deal was announced in March, “Before I went to prison, I paid back every cent from my campaign as well, a second mortgage. I paid back every dollar, but I still had to go to prison. It’s all good though, I am happy for Aaron.”
Schock’s surprising deal requires him to pay the IRS $42,000 and reimburse about $68,000 to his congressional campaign fund. He also had to stay out of further trouble for six months to have all the felony charges dropped and his record cleared.
And that may be the most important difference in the cases. Jackson pleaded guilty in return for a reduced sentence. Blagojevich insisted on his innocence and went on a pseudo-victory lap of TV talk shows, “Dancing With the Stars” and other high-profile venues. The court apparently was not amused.
But the big question lingering over Schock’s case is how it evaporated last spring. Justice Department officials tossed out the original prosecutors in the case and moved it from the Central District to the Northern District of Illinois in Cook County.
What happened? Good question. Speculation was rampant at the time that the case was falling apart. Those suspicions seemed to be confirmed when the case suddenly was dismissed in March under the terms of a deferred prosecution agreement.
I am hardly the only soul whose suspicions now turn to questions about whether the prosecution was incompetent, ill-advised, personally vindictive or whatever.
Which reminds me of another high-profile case that suddenly evaporated in Chicago: Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” star, who apparently faked a hate crime amid global notoriety, yet was abruptly released without charges by the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.
Outrage over that suspicious twist has led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb, to find out what the heck was going on. I think Webb or someone else of his caliber has an urgently needed investigation waiting in the questions around the case of Aaron Schock.