It was an icy 28 degrees in D.C., but a balmier 70 in Phoenix, when Oliver Schwab decided to escape to Arizona in 2015 for Super Bowl Weekend. And by most accounts, it looked like the chief of staff had booked a personal vacation on the taxpayer tab.
Former employees say the trip was par for the course for Schwab. Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, three sources accuse Schwab of using Congress to enrich himself at the expense of his fiscally conservative boss, Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz.
A potential liability if the congressman decides to run for Senate or governor, Schwab’s lavish spending reveals shortcomings in Schweikert’s stewardship of both donor and taxpayer money.
Schwab dropped more than $5,000 on that Phoenix getaway. According to Member Reimbursement Account, or MRA, disclosures, the chief of staff spent $381 on meals, shelled out $660 for a rental car, and forked over $800 dollars per night at a hotel, for five nights, costing $4,027 total. That car rental was, according to the MRA, only for 3 days.
“Outrageous. What was he driving? A Maserati?” asks Richard Painter, former White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush and the current vice chairman of the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “A staffer spending $800 dollars a night in a hotel? That’s a scandal in and of itself, whether or not it’s even legal. It certainly shouldn’t be legal.”
'I am in compliance with House rules'
Per the member’s handbook, published by the House Administration Committee, official travel “may not be for personal, campaign-related political party, campaign, or committee purposes.” And while the House Ethics Manual does make exceptions for so called “mixed-purpose trips,” strict restrictions govern what a federal employee can and can’t do during a trip.
But while the Schweikert office insists Schwab’s travel was within the rules, they won’t show the Washington Examiner copies of receipts or any kind of event schedule. Photos posted on Schwab’s social media show the staffer had a good time. Along with his wife and his mother, on Jan. 31, Schwab watched Bubba Watson tee-off at the Phoenix Golf Open. Later that night, Schwab’s brother joined the group in a private box to watch the Phoenix Suns defeat the Chicago Bulls. And on Super Bowl Sunday, Schwab and his brother enjoyed brunch and took pictures in the Phoenix Desert Gardens before the big game.
Asked about his travels, Schwab insists everything was above board. “I have been in compliance with House rules,” he reiterates. “I am in compliance with House rules. And I will continue to be in compliance with House rules.”
He explains: The accommodations weren’t really lavish, just a simple room at a Hilton Garden Inn (a night costs $120 normally). The private box at the basketball game was sponsored by an industry group (Schwab attended as a guest of his wife). The seats at the golf tournament were sponsored by the McCarthy Victory Committee and attended, Schwab says, by “both Mr. Schweikert and I” along with “every other member in the GOP delegation and their chief” (if any of the Arizona delegation attended, MRA records don’t show it).
Sources within Schweikert's staff accuse Schwab of being “the Aaron Schock of staffers,” a reference to the disgraced Illinois Republican congressman who spent taxpayer cash on luxurious trips, an extravagant office, and an altogether lavish lifestyle. Chief of staff since 2011, Schwab, has raked in nearly half a million in salary — not unusual for a congressional chief of staff — but he's topped off that income with more than a hundred thousand to his consulting firm, plus tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded reimbursements out of the congressman’s office funds.
There’s no immediate evidence of illegality. Campaigns and congressional offices have broad discretion in how to spend their money. But Federal Electoral Commission records and House Statement of Disbursement data persuaded at least one congressional ethics experts.
“There’s a lot of smoke here," says Painter when reached by phone at the University of Minnesota law school. "A lotta, lotta smoke here.”
'Oliver was effectively paying himself'
Former Schweikart employees point out that the money trail always leads to Schwab. Not only has the chief of staff managed the Schweikert Victory Committee since 2011, a separate organization from the campaign, he also runs his own consulting firm called Chartwell out of his Alexandria condo.
During each of the last three elections, Schweikert contracted with Chartwell. The Friends of David Schweikert PAC, the Team Dave PAC, and the Schweikert Victory Committee all followed suit. “There was a clear lack of oversight,” a source inside Schweikert world complained. “It looked to me like Oliver was effectively paying himself — like, you know, he just put himself on the payroll.”
The chief of staff admits that Chartwell is a one-man shop — “anytime you see Chartwell that’s Oliver Schwab” — but he denies any wrongdoing. The operative says he runs the full stack consulting firm mostly at night after work and is only “making cents on the hour.”
“Do you want me to be doing all this campaign stuff as a volunteer?” Schwab says growing a bit indignant. “I’m being made modestly whole on something I’ve spent a significant amount of time on, something I care about, my boss’ reelection.”
Helping Schweikert keep his seat, Chartwell raked in $164,887 from Schweikert's various campaign committees, of which $137,709 was billed as consulting fees with the remainder going toward operating costs.
None of that went without notice in the office. Neither did the regular official reimbursements, particularly for outside office supplies. According to congressional records, Schweikert paid back Schwab more than $20,000 in reimbursements billed for “office supplies (outside).” Colleagues noticed the pattern, and in discussing the spending with the Examiner, one asked rhetorically if Schwab “lived at Staples.” "At one point, we worked it out that Schwab was making a reimbursement every three days,” that colleague says.
Although not self-evidently improper, these transactions rang alarm bells among Schweikert staff, because the congressional office could procure supplies through the U.S. House of Representatives Office Supply Service instead. It seemed oddly roundabout for Schwab to buy tens of thousands in office supplies from the outside and then to get reimbursed.
Schweikert's office won’t show receipts, but Schwab says he’s just getting the best deal possible by going through outside vendors. He adds that the in-house Office Supply Service, which many members employ, doesn’t have boxes to carry the merchandise.
Multiple sources say these kind of expenditures were an “open secret.” It’s not clear whether or not the congressman was ever confronted about the unusual cash flow. After all, Schweikert has been on the front lines of so many bigger federal spending fights, it seems possible he missed the one allegedly festering inside his own office.
“Schweikert was never the kind of guy who would dive into the inner workings of his office on a day-to-day basis,” one of his aides says. “He totally trusted Oliver to run that. He placed 110 percent in him, and that was a mistake.”
Then again, maybe Schwab really is a fiscal Boy Scout. Perhaps the big charges for reimbursements and the bigger expenses for the consulting firm are just how D.C. works. Maybe everyone is doing it. But Schweikert is supposed to be different. He’s the guy who promised not to tolerate typical Washington waste.
Former colleagues don’t buy that possibility and they describe Schwab as “too smart for his own good.” Some of those smarts Schwab might’ve picked up courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. Congress paid $7,000 to send Schwab to Harvard University for a course in leadership and a yet-undisclosed amount to send him to Stanford University for a course in management.
To his credit Schwab has made an effort at transparency. He spoke with the Examiner over the phone three different times and he also says he reached out to both the House Ethics and Administration committees, neither of which would talk to the Examiner on the record.
Just in case Schwab wants to settle up, though. "In reflecting on our conversation," Schwab wrote in an email, "I want to volunteer that if there are any line items that you or any outside stakeholders want to identify that you feel breach good faith, I will happily write a personal check to the Treasury."