SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock's legal problems expanded Wednesday as a contributor sued to force the repayment of millions of campaign dollars, saying he was tricked into believing the young lawmaker who has since resigned amid questions about his spending was "a breath of fresh air" in a corruption-riddled state.
The unusual lawsuit filed by Howard Foster, a Chicago lawyer who pitched in just $500 to Schock, cites Illinois' long history of political and financial shenanigans — from a pre-Civil War governor to former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.'s recent prison term for misusing campaign funds — and plants Schock among them in claiming his fundraising arm was a corrupt racket.
One election-law expert said he's never seen such a lawsuit and predicted legal obstacles.
Schock, a 33-year-old Republican from Peoria who resigned last month, had been a money-raising machine with shooting-star millennial appeal. The lawsuit targets all four of his fundraising accounts. In his main congressional fund alone, he collected nearly $11 million since 2008, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Foster anted up "because he believed Mr. Schock was ethical, a breath of fresh air in Illinois politics, and had a bright future in Congress," the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Chicago, states. "However, the opposite was true, and while Schock may have been a new, young face in Congress, he willingly followed well-tread paths of political sleaze for personal gain."
The complaint seeks class-action status and repayment of all contributions. It counts 7,130 contributors to Schock's main fund alone — all potential plaintiffs, although Foster is the only one thus far.
Schock's spending — including redecorating his Washington office in the style of "Downton Abbey" — came under scrutiny in February. After additional media reports, including by The Associated Press, about how he financed and reported travel and alleged improper mileage reimbursements, he quit and a federal criminal investigation began.
A spokesman for Schock declined to comment on Wednesday. The ex-congressman, first elected to the Peoria School Board as a 19-year-old write-in candidate, had $3.35 million in three campaign committees at the end of 2014, according to federal records.
The lawsuit says Foster donated to Schock in April 2012 after receiving solicitations at his home, part of what Foster claims was "racketeering activity" which included writing "misleading fundraising letters emphasizing the themes of integrity, freshness, and his bright future."
There could be more defendants, too — Schock is a defendant along with "John Does 1-100," described as campaign-fund solicitors.
The complaint lists Schock among the Prairie State's more infamous state and federal officeholders, beginning with 1850s Gov. Joel Matteson, who illegally cashed $250,000 in scrip issued to finance the Illinois and Michigan Canal and a dozen more, up to Jackson and impeached ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, sent to prison in 2012 for trying to sell the former Senate seat held by President Barack Obama.
Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at UC-Irvine, said he's never seen such a lawsuit and was skeptical about its chances of success. First of all, while they are not gifts, federal regulations consider campaign cash akin to such gestures of munificence.
"If I give you a gift, I don't really have a say over what you do with it, as opposed to, I give you money for a particular purpose," Hasen said.
Hasen also questioned whether Schock could be linked to money technically given to election committees, although the lawsuit's answer is that Schock directed those activities and signed letters seeking contributions.
Foster's attorney, Steve Berman, noted Schock's Capitol Hill farewell speech in which he vowed to "work tirelessly" to make amends to those he let down.
"We believe this lawsuit gives him the golden opportunity to do just that," the Seattle-based lawyer said in a statement, "and we look forward to seeing every penny returned to campaign contributors who believed the false statements Schock was spoon-feeding his supporters."
Contact John O'Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor
Associated Press writers Jack Gillum in Washington, D.C. and Sara Burnett contributed.