WASHINGTON — A bad week just got worse in the office of Rep. Aaron Schock, an Illinois Republican. Benjamin Cole, Schock’s spokesman and senior adviser, has now resigned after news reports about a series of racially charged comments he made on his Facebook page over the course of several years. In a statement to his hometown newspaper, the Journal Star, Schock said he had accepted Cole’s resignation.
“I am extremely disappointed by the inexcusable and offensive online comments made by a member of my staff,” the congressman said in the statement. “I would expect better from any member of my team. Upon learning about them I met with Mr. Cole and he offered his resignation which I have accepted.”
According to the website Think Progress, Cole’s online remarks included this comment about his black neighbors from 2013: “So apparently the closing of the National Zoo has forced the animals to conduct their mating rituals on my street. #gentrifytoday Pt. 1”
He also joked in August 2010 about President Barack Obama, who is Christian, saying, “They should build a mosque on the White House grounds.”
In that August post, Cole explained to a commenter, “I wasn’t talking about the Ground Zero mosque. I just think it would be nice for the President to have his own house of worship, since he’s not been able to find out suitable in D.C. since 2004 when he moved here.”
Another post read: “The fact remains that white people who live in my building are routinely harassed by black miscreants who blockade the sidewalks and entryways in front of and behind my building.”
Think Progress said the offensive posts appeared to have been removed by Wednesday. But Schock’s rough week began days ago, in a Washington Post article about the congressman’s unusual office décor. In that article, Cole was portrayed as trying to delay or prevent the reporting of that story.
The controversy began over the unusual way Schock decided to decorate his Capitol Hill digs in the Rayburn House Office Building, purportedly inspired by the PBS show “Downton Abbey.”
With it’s dark red walls, a bust of Abraham Lincoln, a sparkling chandelier, a candelabra wall sconce with black candles and a veritable bouquet of pheasant feathers, it’s hardly the office of your typical House member. But Schock has never claimed to be typical.
“I’ve never been an old crusty white guy,” he told ABC News. “I’m different. You know, I came to Congress at 27.”
Schock is the first member of Congress to be born in the 1980s, is an active user of the photo sharing app Instagram and might be one of the only members who ever has — or ever will — appear shirtless on the cover of a men’s fitness magazine, where in 2011 he proudly displayed his toned abs on the cover beside the tagline “Political Muscle! America’s Fittest Congressman!”
“I think there’s obviously some modest intrigue because, you know, most members offices are cream walls,” Schock told ABC.
Annie Brahler, the Jacksonville, Illinois-based decorator responsible for the look, told CNN the comparison to the hit PBS television series was a misunderstanding.
“The office redesign was not inspired by Downton Abbey,” Brahler said. “I think a receptionist just said that to the guy from the Post and he sort of ran with it. I designed the space and Downton Abbey didn’t have anything to do with it, however it’s a great show!”
Schock said he had never even seen an episode of the show.
Brahler also decorated Schock’s previous office in the Cannon House Office Building.
“I just changed this one up a little,” she said.
Much of the money for his office decorations comes from taxpayers. Each member of Congress is supplied with basic office furniture, but can add their own touch with additional furniture and decorations. Each member is provided with what’s known as a Members’ Representational Allowance (“MRA”) during each session of Congress. The budget is authorized by the Committee on House Administration and is “to support the conduct of official and representational duties to the district from which he or she is elected.”
The amount, which is based on a series of factors, can change from year to year.
In 2009, Schock’s first year in office, his MRA was $1,471,366. That year Schock spent at least $32,500 on furniture and other embellishments like granite counter tops and hardwood flooring, according to official records. Those expenses included some $6,500 on items from Allan Knight and Associates, which sells specialty acrylic, lighting, accessories and antiques and about $7,400 paid to Illinois-based KBL Design Center, which advertises itself as “a one-stop source for every facet of an elegant home.”
After the Post reported Brahler had offered her services for free, the nonprofit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint Tuesday asking the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate whether Schock violated House rules by accepting free interior decoration services and improperly using campaign funds to pay for furniture in his congressional offices.
The congressman told ABC Wednesday that he planned to pay for the renovations out of his own pocket.
As for what his constituents at home Peoria will think about his new digs, Schock didn’t seem too worried.
“I’m somebody who delivers for my district,” he told ABC. “Regardless of what color you choose for your office, the most important thing as a member of Congress is what you do for your constituents and whether you do your job and I would say that my overwhelming re-election last cycle, despite having dark navy walls, was over 70%.”