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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Aaron Schock’s Former Advisor Details the Congressman’s Downfall—And His Own

Ben Cole was the first—and most bloodied—casualty of Aaron Schock’s downfall.

Ben Cole, the former communications director for congressman Aaron Schock  Photo: Dawn Bayer Photography

I’d had Benjamin Cole on my mind ever since the Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet wrote a story about him last week. It was a story I wished I had written because, with the exception of Cole’s boss, 34-year-old Peoria congressman Aaron Schock himself, who seemed destined for big things and now faces disgrace and serious legal jeopardy, the biggest casualty in the Schock mess was Ben Cole, 39. A Texan and an ordained Southern Baptist pastor, Cole’s segue from the ministry to politics—he moved to D.C. in 2008 and did some on-the-road campaign work for McCain/Palin and for Elizabeth Dole—has, it turns out, left his reputation in the dust. 

When I was writing a profile of Bruce Rauner, I called Ben Cole to set up an interview with Schock. Cole, who served Schock as both communications director and senior advisor since early 2014, stood out among the many congressional spokesmen I deal with. He didn’t act like he was doing me a favor, got back to me as promised, and quickly arranged a telephone call between me and the 18th District congressman. 

Early last February, Cole found himself in a position no congressional staffer ever wants to be in. He had become the story, making headlines when it appeared he had tried to stop a Washington Post reporter from writing about the expensive redecoration—featuring walls painted a shocking shade of red, reminiscent of country house in the PBS hit Downton Abbey—of Schock’s office in the Rayburn House Office Building.

In the wake of that story that sounded like an attempt to censor a reporter, Buzzfeed and ThinkProgress found Cole’s Facebook posts, some from 2013, written during the government shutdown—before Cole worked for Schock—that were downright racist, noting about residents of his block on W Street NW: “So apparently the closing of the National Zoo has forced the animals to conduct their mating ritual on my street.”

Cole promptly resigned; Schock followed in late March, as the office renovation led to questions about Schock’s highflying, global life, and his putting a photographer on the payroll to capture and post to Instagram the often shirtless congressman surfing in Hawaii or doing the tango in Buenos Aires. Reporters were investigating everything from stays at five-star hotels abroad to reimbursements Schock received for apparently inflated mileage counts on the cars he used in his district.

Here’s an edited transcript of our much condensed—we spoke by telephone for 90 minutes—conversation:

When you interviewed with Congressman Schock, your controversial Facebook posts were already out there. Did they come up?

No, they didn’t… I deeply regret having posted those things. It was just an exercise in poor judgment and shortsightedness on my part. I lived in a transitional neighborhood where there had been a series of violent crimes including against my neighbors, who were put in the intensive care unit because of violent crimes happening right outside my building, and I began regularly corresponding with my local police officers who had the beat in my neighborhood, as well as with the chief of police, about crimes that were happening.

I went to community events with city councilmen to express concern and to hear what we could do to prevent crime, and I was told by the local police that if I saw something to report it, and, if I could, to video tape it, so I did. …. And I made flip remarks about it. At the time it seemed like a sense of humor about something that isn’t funny—crime happening in the community; people being brutally attacked, or shot. And I saw someone shot right in front of me one time. I suppose the way I was dealing with some of the frustrations of living in a community that’s in transition was to laugh about it. And that wasn’t the proper response and I deeply regret doing that.

So were these comments weighing on you as you worked for Schock?

I didn’t think about [them] at all. I just moved on. It surprised me the week in February [2015] when I was emailed, “Here are these things that we culled from your Facebook.” I quickly found out how those things had been culled from people I believed to be friends and forwarded them on to journalists. 

Do you have a Facebook page now?

I do use Facebook and I don’t anticipate getting off Facebook. It’s a tool for connecting with my family and friends. I have lots of nieces and nephews, and, more than anything, I like keeping up with my family.

When you met with Schock and discussed these posts, he made some unequivocal statements about why you were leaving. He didn’t come to your defense at all. Were you disappointed?

I helped draft the statement he released to the media the day that I resigned. I even strengthened the language of the statement he released. … I wasn’t angry with him afterwards, and I don’t think he was angry with me. It was a sad moment.

You didn’t feel that he had thrown you to the wolves?

No, I didn’t feel that way at all. I resigned.

Are you still living on W Street? 

No. I live on Capitol Hill.

The stuff that has come up in the press since he resigned about the mileage, the fancy hotels, travel, private planes, all of that. Was he aware of these things, aware of how he was receiving and spending money? Was there malice in his heart? Or was he just not paying attention?

There were a lot of people who questioned my heart and motives and my character based on a few moments of poor judgment… The impression left by those Facebook posts don’t accurately reflect who I am or my heart… So I don’t want to be in a position of saying, I know what’s in his heart or his motive. At no time when I worked for him did I ever observe anything that led me to believe or suspect that he was defrauding either taxpayers or campaign donors. I was not suspicious of his behavior. I think that he may have also exercised poor judgment in a couple of circumstances.

Such as?

I thought that the Instagram account was getting out of control, that it’s creating the wrong impression. I thought it was doing a disservice to him as a serious legislator. But that was part of the role as his advisor to say those things.

And you did say to him the Instagram account makes you look superficial?

I didn’t say that, and I don’t think I would have said it quite like that.

What did you say, and how did he respond?

At one point I told him that I was spending a lot of time fielding calls from reporters about his Instagram account and not about legislation that he was drafting, offering, voting on… I expressed that to him at my annual review in December [2014], which took place in the office of John Shimkus. Mr. Schock’s office was in a state of disarray—the decorator, the painters, scaffolding—and so he borrowed the office of John Shimkus to do his staff’s annual reviews.

On the wall behind where Mr. Schock was seated were framed bills, pieces of legislation that Mr. Shimkus had authored, signed by various presidents and had the presidential signing pen embedded in the frame. Lots of members have those in their office. I suggested to Mr. Schock that going into this next year, our goal needs to be to get some of that up. I said this is the office of a congressman and he has a record of legislative accomplishment, and you see that when you walk into his office. This should be part of what our goal is, to help you get these on your wall. And I even said, not cheap knockoff prints and decorator [stuff] from the flea market. [The decorator, from Jacksonville, Illinois, calls her company Euro Trash.]

He was allowing me to reflect with him on the year behind and the year ahead and I had stated very clearly a goal: “I want to help you reach [the goal] of moving effective pieces of legislation.” It would have been the first time since he’d been in Washington that we’d had a Republican Senate. There would have been a real chance of getting legislation to the President’s desk. And we talked about that. I regret that all of [those] deep aspirations will never be fulfilled, both for me and for him.

And he replied?

We talked about bills. Mr. Schock had been successful on a Guantanamo funding measure early in his congressional career. We talked about how [he was] going to come up with a bill to bar detainee transfers in perpetuity. We spent a lot of time talking about various legislative ideas.

Did you specifically say the redecoration of your office that set all of these events in motion is not a good idea, and let’s try to stop [the decorator] before she…

I did not say that at that time. And it wasn’t my role to advise him on office decorations. … I will tell you that when I finally became concerned about how the office decorations would play out in the media, I was getting [questions from] friends who were journalists who regularly work in D.C., before the Washington Post [did its story]. … I had members of Congress that would say, “How’s the office coming along? I can’t wait to see this.” So all that was happening and I thought, ’This is going to garner the wrong kind of attention.’ 

So I went to Sarah Rogers [who booked travel and submitted expense vouchers for Schock and staff] who was then his executive assistant… I asked her how much the office [decoration] was costing, and she told me that she couldn’t provide me that information. And Mr. Schock had said [in the wake of the Washington Post story] that he was paying for the cost of decorating himself. He had told me that. And he said that to the media… About mid-January, because I was not getting information from her about how things were being paid for, I decided, if I can’t get information from the office itself, I need to look at whatever reporters have access to. … So I went and pulled all the records.

It took me about three nights at home. … I put together a spreadsheet that detailed all the things that I saw as problematic expenditures, both out of the campaigns and his congressional accounts. I was preparing to go to him and say, “You’ve got to remove and replace the two primary people [Rogers and Karen Haney a former reporter for the Peoria Journal Star who handled the campaign books] and who are responsible for handling your books because look at all these problems." And then my plan was to work with him to find the right kind of people to fill those roles. There’s ample experience and expertise in dealing with congressional accounts in Washington. You don’t have to rely on inexperience and a person with no accounting background to do it.

Tell me more about this decorator, Annie Brahler

She put together a several-page design proposal. … It was forwarded to me by an intern who had a copy of it. This was early January, and it had Downton Abbey pictures in it. …. So when the decorator claims that Downton Abbey was not an inspiration, that’s just patently false.

Did you have any interaction with her?

Yeah, I did, of course I did, especially when I found out that she had invited the Washington Post reporter into the office and allowed him to take photos and she didn’t have authorization to do that. I immediately said that we were in crisis mode. … I had told [Schock] that I thought [the office] looked like Liberace’s drawing room. I didn’t like it and I thought that it was going to be a problem. At one point of the design phase, she had crumpled up old, tattered American flags and stuffed them into glass jars. It is not appropriate to crumple up the American flag and stuff it into a glass jar. 

Do you regret having worked for Schock?

I had determined in early January to seek other employment anyway. It just was very clear to me that I needed to find another place to work. … By mid-January, I had examined all those public records. Quite frankly, I did not want to be around and be his spokesman when all the questions started coming. The morning I was late to meet with [Washington Post reporter] Ben Terris, the reason I was late was because I was interviewing for another position.

With another congressman?

No. It was off the Hill with a firm downtown in D.C.

The Washington Post reporter showed up before you did and the staffer sitting at the front desk made the Downton Abbey connection. You must have thought, why’d she do that?

I thought that everything that happened from the moment [Terris] walked in and how he was dealt with was unprofessional and completely irresponsible. We had staffers that were talking to reporters. That’s a no-no on Capitol Hill. The intern made the statement. It wasn’t with malice, it just was a lack of experience, naiveté. … Then Sarah Rogers came into the room and demanded that he delete the photos. Well that’s not smart either.

I certainly was not upset with Ben Terris. I tried to honor a commitment to Ben to get him in to meet the congressman if [the Post] would hold the story. I told Aaron my advice to him was to do this story. … And talk about [the decoration of the office], sure, say, “Look in this cabinet. Here’s a first edition of the three-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln written by Carl Sandburg.” He has a signed copy of the 1964 civil rights bill with Everett Dirksen’s signature on it. Those kind of things were in his office, and all of that got missed because of talk about Downton Abbey. [Schock] didn’t like the feathers. There were some of the things that he didn’t like and he hadn’t seen, and so my appeal to Ben Terris was, “Don’t write this story. The office hasn’t even been seen by the congressman in its final form yet. Let him come in, let him see his own office, and let me see if I can get you an interview with him.” … He had wanted to do a profile on him… He was there to meet with me, to talk about a profile that he wanted to write on the congressman.

What can you tell me about Jonathon Link, the photographer on Schock’s staff?

He’s a close, personal friend. I think he’s an excellent photographer. I hate that he’s been caught up in all of this too… I supported his coming on staff. The reason he was coming on staff was to help produce videos. And there are a host of them that he was able to put together, and I think if people saw the amount of work he was doing, they’d see how his skills really were an asset to the 18th District. He was out filming farmers and interviewing constituents, and we were able to put together a number of really top quality videos that [showed] the work, the industry, and the people of the 18th District.

I think people like me who follow politics thought he was traveling with Schock to capture him doing the tango in Buenos Aires or hang gliding in the Andes.

That’s exactly what I was concerned about. So there were photos from a personal vacation that the congressman took and Jonathon Link took them. He’s a great photographer. He gave them to Aaron. Aaron liked the photos and put them on Instagram.

Did you know Jonathon Link before he came to work for Aaron?

I met him at the same time Aaron met him, in April of last year. He had produced a documentary on Travis Mills, who was a quadruple amputee survivor from the war in Afghanistan. Aaron was hosting Travis at a leadership conference in Peoria. There was a screening of that documentary. I was so impressed with the documentary, [so] while Jon was there, Aaron needed to film a quick introduction video. … I suggested that since we had a videographer right there with us and he had done such excellent work, let’s get him to film it. So literally we went into the streets of Peoria. … By the early or mid summer I suggested to Aaron that he think about hiring Jon. Aaron said that he’d been thinking about that too.

Schock’s image locally has always been as something of a fop. Had you been on his staff when he did the Men’s Health cover in 2011, would you have advised him not to?

I’m certainly not going to sit and try to sort of post-game analyze what my predecessors did … When I came to work for him, I wanted to get him the front page of the Wall Street Journal for major legislative accomplishments. [Schock held a coveted seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.] That was my goal. I wanted to see him in the Financial Times and Investors Business Daily. … When I interviewed with him and took the job this was where my strength was. I didn’t have contacts with fashion or style magazines and wasn’t looking to cultivate them.

Was he a hardworking, serious legislator?

Sure, absolutely, I thought he was very hardworking. I mean he had boundless energy and a packed calendar. His mornings started early and he worked until late. The pace at which he worked was exhausting for me. I think from constituent meetings to phone calls to meeting with lobbyists, to meeting with his fellow committeemen and policy advisers on various committees. … He didn’t miss many votes in the time I worked for him. … I never had the sense at all during the time I worked for him that he was abusing the public trust at all. He worked hard and challenged me to work hard, and I did.

When your name hit the headlines, it soon emerged that you had been on screen in a 1999 documentary on the subject of efforts by Southern Baptists to convert Jews. [Cole was licensed to be a minister in 1997 and ordained in 2001. In the film Cole says he thinks “homosexuality is an abomination.”]

The film never really got noticed at all. … I was a very young seminarian at the time and the things that I said in that film are quite common things that are said among southern Baptist pastors. I wasn’t saying something that was controversial, at least within the Southern Baptist context. I think I reflected accurately, though perhaps youthfully, commonly held beliefs and positions in the Southern Baptist Convention. … The man who produced the film, Steve Manin, I really had considered a friend. As I’ve seen the film in retrospect, I certainly don’t agree with some of the things I said anymore. I was a young fundamentalist seminarian. I was a kid…. [Manin] circulated it to all the journalists who were covering [the Schock decorating controversy]. … He was trying to get attention for his film. I can’t speak to what his motivation was.

Have you spoken to Schock in the time since you left your job and he left Congress?

I spoke with him a number of times in the two or three weeks following my resignation. I sent a series of text messages to him [suggesting] how he might handle what was unfolding. … I told him I thought he needed to hire outside auditors. You need to replace Sarah Rogers and Karen Haney. They can’t have any hands-on [responsibility]. [I told him that] he needed to self report to the House Administration Committee and Federal Election Commission that he had discovered irregularities and errors in his public reports. … I told him that he needed to forgo all campaign-related travel and campaign fundraising events for a period of 90 days at least. At the end of 90 days he would make public whatever audit [arose] and that he would forgo his own personal salary until all the matter was cleared, [until] it was absolutely certain that he had not personally profited. I told him that he had to do basically a Nixon Checkers speech. Here’s everything I owe; here’s everything I own. I said you need to ask for the opportunity to restore the confidence of your colleagues and your constituents and re-earn their trust. That was the last serious conversation we had after I resigned and well before he resigned. Via text message.

How did he respond?

I’ll just tell you what I said… I hope you understand why. I’ve turned all of that over at the request of the FBI, given the FBI copies of our correspondence and email correspondence. On I think it was February 26 at about 10 o’clock at night I got a sense that this was not going to end well. … When the FBI turned up, I told them that I was anticipating hearing from them. On February 26, I sent myself an email about 10 o’clock at night to document that I would no longer communicate with Aaron Schock through text or email from that point going forward because … I anticipated that this would become a federal investigation.

Is Schock angry or irritated with you for statements that you have made that have gone public?

I don’t know what he would be thinking. Our lives are now only connected in so far only as I have been a witness in a federal investigation and have pledged to cooperate with the investigators.  [Cole has testified before a federal grand jury in Springfield, convened to examine Schock’s spending of congressional and campaign funds.]

Looking down the road, do you expect that Aaron Schock is going to be indicted?

I don’t know any of that. I can’t predict that. … I wish him the best. I’m not angry with him, I’m not mad, bitter or upset, at anything. The entire time I worked with him and for him, we had a great, amicable, professional relationship.

Are you in legal difficulty?

No.

Is Schock paying any of your legal fees?

No. I was contacted by one of Mr. Schock’s lawyers to offer to help me find legal counsel. I told him at the time that I had already sought legal counsel and … they emailed me to ask me to please tell them the name of my lawyers so they could correspondent directly with my lawyer, and I never responded.

Will you stay in D.C.?

For now, I’m staying here. I’ve been picking up just small contracts here and there… I’ll be doing consulting. I’m going to try to stay away from lobbying.

What am I missing?

I’ll tell you one question you could have asked me. “What is my biggest regret?” There are a number of hardworking, good people who have been employed by Mr. Schock through the years who are now caught up in a federal investigation; themselves now looking for jobs, and forever … there’s going to be a stain on their professional resume. And questions that they’ll have to answer that they should never have even been asked, as they search for new employment. That is a huge regret that I have. They’re good people, hard working legislative staffers who are now, because of either carelessness or criminal activity, are having to deal with a major shakeup in their lives… The [special election to replace Schock] is next week and staffers will either be retained on staff by [likely winner] Darrin Lahood or they’ll be terminated.

Before we hang up, Ben Cole makes a request:

I would ask that you be very judicious about how you reflect upon the Facebook posts, not because I didn’t make them, but because it’s awful, and it’s painful to see [them] regurgitated. … It was bad humor, something I thought was clever, and it just wasn’t.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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