Jim Dey | Is Schock still guilty in court of public opinion?

Jim Dey | Is Schock still guilty in court of public opinion?

Former U.S. Rep Aaron Schock has been getting a lot of bad press lately. Some suggest he got an undeserved pass for committing a series of financial crimes while others speculate that the reason is because he's white.

Of course, it could have been a lot worse. The deluge of attacks from the Chicago media came after federal prosecutors agreed to dismiss a lengthy criminal indictment against him.

Just imagine what the critics would have said if Schock had actually been convicted of a crime instead of federal prosecutors falling on their swords.

The hostile reaction is no great surprise — many people think the worst of their elected officials. So when they are charged with a crime, people are inclined to accept the allegations at face value.

That's particularly true when it comes to the federal prosecutions because, generally speaking, the feds only file charges in cases where the evidence of guilt is overwhelming. They don't make waves by backing losers.

So what happened in the Schock case, while not without precedent, is extremely rare. It was the federal prosecutors — armed with unlimited time, money and manpower — who said, "No mas."

It appears — for reasons that are unclear — that federal prosecutors put together a case that was ultimately unprosecutable because it lacked evidence to support the allegations or tried to criminalize conduct that was not criminal.

There's a reason why top officials in the Justice Department ousted the original prosecutors in the case — Patrick Hansen and Tim Bass — and followed that decision by stripping responsibility for prosecution from the Central District and re-assigning it to the Northern District of Illinois in Cook County.

There's also a reason why the first statement out of the mouth of a Northern District prosecutor last September was that his office would review the investigation, evidence and indictment from beginning to end before deciding whether to proceed any further.

That announcement set off alarm bells for those paying attention, which was hardly anyone. Given that declaration five months ago, last week's dismissal of the case under the terms of a deferred prosecution agreement was a surprise, but not a huge one.

That decision led to an article by Peoria Journal-Star's veteran columnist Phil Luciano, a longtime Schock watcher, that was headlined, "Were Schock prosecutors dumb, wrong, vindictive or what?"

The 37-year-old Schock, a Republican whose first foray into politics was winning election to the Peoria school board at age 19, represented the Peoria area when he was in the U.S. House.

So the Journal-Star not only was familiar with Schock, it also closely followed the controversy since news dumps from an unidentified source linked him to inaccurate mileage reimbursements in 2015.

Those farther away from the Schock case are burdened by a lack of information about its details as well as a motive to politically exploit the result.

One Chicago columnist argued that Schock wrongfully received more favorable treatment than former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who went to prison for spending campaign funds on personal items. The columnist considers the case against the two men as the same.

"But there's one significant difference. ... Jackson served about 22 months in prison, while Schock is going to walk free," he wrote.

Actually, there are many significant differences between the two cases. But the biggest is that Jackson, who was caught red-handed, negotiated a guilty plea in which he acknowledged his guilt.

From the very beginning, Schock denied any criminal culpability and was preparing to go to trial in June.

Then there is Chicago mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board.

In a city as tribal as Chicago, playing the race card usually is effective politics. So that's what Preckwinkle did, stating that "I don't know the particulars of (Schock's) case. But on the face of it, there seems to be the usual disparities that we see in our criminal-justice system that are race-based."

Preckwinkle, a black woman, is not likely to gain many race-based votes by suggesting a double standard. It's her bad luck to be running against prominent lawyer Lori Lightfoot, who also is black.

The good news for Schock is that it doesn't matter what people think about the feds' decision to throw in the towel. The case against him is effectively over, and that's not going to change.

Schock noted the criminal charges reflected "supposedly an abuse of taxpayer money" by him. Schock insists the "real abuse was this investigation" that was a "massive fishing investigation" that searched desperately for criminal wrongdoing without finding any.

The former legislator pointed out that Northern District prosecutors dismissed the work done by Central District prosecutors and urged reporters to call John Milhiser, the new U.S. attorney for the Central District, and ask "who got it right, and who got it wrong."

That's a great idea. But prosecutors in both the Northern and Central districts are not commenting on the Schock fiasco. Their lips are locked, and they're leaving it to the news media to fill the void they created.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion
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