So last night I am at Costco and I get a tweet from @danielschuman directing my attention to two new filings by the legal team for former Congressman Aaron Schock, who is facing federal charges arising from, among other things, the allegedly improper use of his Members Representational Allowance to decorate his congressional office in a lavish “Downton Abbey” style. Schock’s attorneys maintain that the government’s allegations are built on a “house of cards” (heh) and are demanding discovery regarding certain aspects of the prosecution case, including whether prosecutors gave erroneous legal instructions to the grand jury about the House Ethics Manual and other House guidelines for official conduct by members of Congress.
The real blockbuster in the Schock motions, though, was the revelation that the FBI had recruited a congressional staffer in Schock’s district office to act as a confidential informant and, get this, wear a wire while having conversations with Schock and other members of his staff. The CI also allegedly seized or attempted to seize various documents from Schock’s office for the government’s benefit.
Schock’s team is livid, and I can’t say that I blame them. Bear in mind that the House Counsel has long taken the position that the FBI should go through its office to request or schedule interviews with members, officers or employees of the House related to official conduct. (The FBI supposedly agreed to this in the early 1990s, but, if so, this agreement has often been honored in the breach). The purpose of this procedure is to ensure that interviewees have the opportunity to be represented by counsel and that they understand the rights and obligations arising from their congressional service. For the FBI to not merely conduct an ex parte interview (which it has done before), but to turn a congressional staffer into an informant who secretly records conversations with his boss and colleagues, seems like a flagrant violation of the norms of conduct that have guided executive-legislative branch relations in the post-Watergate era. It is different, for example, than Abscam (controversial itself at the time), which involved third parties who were not subject to congressional rules and who did not enjoy a legislative relationship of trust and confidence with their targets.
A more difficult question is whether this breach of norms amounts to a legal violation that can be enforced in Schock’s criminal case. Schock’s lawyers argue that the government’s actions may constitute “violations of separation of powers principles, including those embodied in Speech or Debate jurisprudence” and assert that “the CI presented a direct threat to Mr. Schock’s Speech or Debate privilege.” They also contend, somewhat more directly, that by “us[ing] the CI to intrude upon Mr. Schock’s Office, to listen to and record conversations with Mr. Schock and his staffers, and to seize documents from with Mr. Schock’s Congressional Office,” the government “violated the Constitutional privilege against executive interference granted to all Members of Congress by the Speech or Debate Clause.”
The government’s alleged actions (and I should note my comments are based solely on what Schock’s lawyers have represented) certainly implicate fundamental concerns of the Speech or Debate Clause, but for reasons I have discussed before (see here for example), I am not sure they constituted violations of the Clause itself, at least as it has been interpreted by the courts. A Speech or Debate analysis would ask whether the government was prohibited from capturing, whether through the testimony of the CI, the secret recordings or pilfered documents, discussions of a legislative nature. But I don’t think that is the primary issue here. The bigger issue is the government’s improper use of a legislator’s “alter ego” (as legislative aides are called in the Speech or Debate jurisprudence) to act as a tool of the prosecution (i.e., the executive branch) without any contemplation of how this conflicted with his duties to the congressman and the House (i.e., the legislative branch).
The irony is that Schock’s prosecution rests in part on House rules, guidelines and norms of conduct (many of which his lawyers claim are not so clear). I am not aware of any specific House rule or guideline that prohibits a staffer from secretly recording his boss or stealing office documents to hand over to the government, but I think there is a decent chance the Ethics Committee would find this to be conduct not reflecting creditably on the House. Maybe the prosecutors should have sought an advisory opinion before they started down this path.
I may have further comments on this as things progress, but these are my initial reactions.