The Implications of the George Santos’ Indictment

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #78 | By: Ian Milden | May 25, 2023
Photo taken from: csmonitor.com

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Summary

On May 10th, Congressman George Santos (R-NY) was indicted by federal prosecutors on charges of money laundering, wire fraud, theft of public funds, and making false statements to the government. Santos has pleaded not guilty. This Brief will discuss the charges against him and examine the political implications of his indictment.

Analysis

Congressman George Santos had gained a reputation for admitting that he made false statements about his biography during his campaign for Congress. An investigation from the Department of Justice alleges that his dishonesty went further than his campaign falsehoods.

The indictment against Santos outlines two separate schemes that resulted in thirteen charges against him. The first part of the indictment accuses Santos of taking contributions from his campaign account and using them for his personal benefit. Prosecutors say that he used these funds on personal debts and designer clothes. Prosecutors have Santos’ bank records to support their claims.

Using campaign funds for personal expenses is illegal, and other members of Congress have gotten in trouble for it. A recent example is Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) who pleaded guilty to federal charges after using campaign funds on things ranging from toys for his children to vacations.

The second part of the indictment against Santos alleges that he applied for unemployment assistance in 2020 when he still had employment. Prosecutors say that Santos gained $24,000 from unemployment assistance that he was not eligible for. Santos was likely aware that fraudulently applying for unemployment benefits was a crime since he co-sponsored a bill to combat unemployment assistance fraud that was due to receive a floor vote the same week he was indicted for it.

The indictment also says that Santos made false statements to the House of Representatives in his required financial disclosure statement. Prosecutors say he falsely stated that he earned a salary from a company he owned as well as the value of his savings and checking accounts.

When a member of Congress is indicted, they are usually required to step back from their committee assignments. This is formally required by the House Republican Conference Rules. Congressman Santos already stepped back from his committee assignments back in January, so the indictment doesn’t change any committee activities.

Santos was already facing calls to resign from disgusted colleagues and those have increased, particularly from the New York delegation. Santos has said that he will not resign. If Santos refuses to resign, Congress would have the ability to expel him. Expulsion requires the support of two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives. Expulsion is rarely used, and most cases were for treason during the start of the civil war. More recent cases of expulsion from Congress have included members who were convicted of corruption charges and accused of sexual misconduct. House Democrats attempted to force a vote to expel George Santos from the House, but it did not get the support of Republican leadership. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy expressed a desire to refer Santos’ indictment situation to the House Ethics Committee, which usually defers to the Justice Department in cases involving criminal conduct. House Republicans voted to refer Santos to the House Ethics Committee on May 18th.

Given the speed at which the Justice Department investigation has moved and the nature of the charges and evidence against Santos, it seems unlikely that Santos will avoid a conviction and remain in Congress. To be clear, Santos would be eligible to remain in Congress if he is convicted, but House rules would prevent him from voting and his colleagues would likely move to expel him. Santos could also resign as part of a plea agreement. A special election would be called to fill the seat when Santos leaves office.

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