Does Rep. Aaron Schock's 'Downton Abbey'-inspired office decor violate House Ethics Committee rules?

When Washington Post reporter Ben Terris went to interview Rep. Aaron Schock at the Rayburn House Office Building this week, he discovered that the Illinois Republican not only has one of the best-looking offices on Capitol Hill, but that Schock is curiously private about his flashy workspace.

Terris writes that when he entered Schock’s outer office, with its bright red walls and gilded sconces, the woman at the front desk told him the room was “actually based off of the red room in ‘Downton Abbey.’” Another woman, who introduced herself as Illinois-based interior decorator Annie Brahler, offered to give Terris a tour of Schock’s interior office, revealing more red walls, a crystal chandelier and a large display of pheasant feathers.

Schock’s luxurious decor undoubtedly stands out among his fellow representatives’ neutral accommodations. But as the first millennial member of Congress, Schock isn’t like his fellow representatives. If getting elected at 28 wasn’t noteworthy enough, Schock really gained notoriety when he displayed his legendarily sculpted abs on the cover of Men’s Health magazine. Since then he’s been spotted dressing brightly at White House parties and snapping selfies with pop stars like Ariana Grande. So it doesn’t exactly come as a surprise that the 33-year-old Schock would be a fan of the popular PBS period drama, or that he would want to spice up his office with a more exciting paint color than the House-provided light yellow, light blue, light gray, beige or eggshell.

“I guess because he’s fresh-minded and forward-thinking, he’s not hung up on doing things the same way as everyone else,” Brahler, who said she also decorated Schock’s previous office at the Cannon House Office Building, told Terris. “It’s gotten to where he’s comfortable with everything I do.”

U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., speaks in support of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner during a campaign rally outside the State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Monday, Nov. 3, 2014. Rauner faces incumbent Democratic Gov, Pat Quinn in Tuesday's election. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Not that comfortable, apparently, as Terris’s tour was interrupted by the congressman’s communications director, Benjamin Cole. Terris, who had been snapping photos of Schock’s digs, had apparently caused an interoffice crisis. Cole implored Terris to delete the photos and not “sour” his opportunity to talk to Schock about other things by writing “some gossipy piece.”

Why, in the words of Schock’s decorator, had the interest in the congressman’s office made his staff act all “prickly”?

Cole insisted it was because Schock hadn’t seen the finished office yet. But even when Terris agreed to hold off on writing about the office if he could be in the room with the congressman when he saw the space for the first time, Schock vetoed this plan, making clear that he didn’t want to be involved in a story about his office decor.

For a man who bared his chest on newsstands, the rush to shield Schock’s spectacular office from speculation is puzzling. Perhaps his staff was concerned that Schock’s decision to pay out of pocket for elaborate decorations when the House of Representatives provided him with the basics might be seen as contrasting with his fiscally conservative image.

Terris noted that Cole got back in touch with him later in the day to clarify that he wasn’t even sure if the congressman watches “Downton Abbey.” “I don’t know what shows he watches,” Cole told Terris. “But I don’t think he watches much TV.”

Yet, another line in Terris’s piece offers an alternative explanation.

“Additional decorations must come out of the lawmaker’s pocket,” Terris wrote. “Brahler offered her services for free, according to Schock’s office, although he had to pay for the objects.”

Maybe it wasn’t the decor Schock’s staff was trying to hide, but where it came from. A spokesperson for the House Ethics Committee declined to comment, but the House Ethics Manual’s section on gifts suggests Brahler’s pro bono decorating may not have been totally kosher.

While Brahler is not, as far as we know, a lobbyist, a foreign principal or a representative of an organization that employs lobbyists or foreign principals, her services may still fall outside the boundaries of what a representative can accept for free. The House Ethics Manual notes that while gifts valued under $50 are OK, representatives may not accept more than $100 worth of gifts from a single source in one year. And any service with monetary value — like decorating — qualifies as a gift. There are a number of exceptions to this rule, but even a gift from a personal friend must be approved by the House Ethics Committee if it exceeds $250 in value. Brahler did not respond to an emailed inquiry about the average cost of her decorating services.

Terris’s interest in Schock’s office may have cost him an interview with the congressman, but he posted the photos anyway. For what it’s worth, Terris tweeted, “I thought the office looked rad.”