Congress sets precedent by expelling Rep. George Santos

UniqueThis 1 December 1, 2023

Rep. George Santos, a New York Republican who won election last fall on what was later revealed to be a largely fabricated biography, today became only the sixth member of the House of Representatives ever to be expelled from Congress.

Following the release of a damning report from the GOP-led House Ethics Committee last month, nearly half of Republicans joined with all but a handful of Democrats to oust Mr. Santos Friday. Notably, the GOP leadership, including the new House speaker, all voted against expulsion.

In only the sixth expulsion ever from the U.S. House, the issue was not just ethical concerns around Mr. Santos’ conduct, but also how expelling someone prior to a criminal conviction could undermine Congress as an institution.

Many Republicans argued Mr. Santos should have his day in court, and that expelling him prior to conviction would set a dangerous precedent. He has been indicted on a range of charges including conspiracy, wire fraud, theft of public money, and fraudulent application for and receipt of unemployment benefits.

Mr. Santos’ conduct presented a test for his Republican colleagues, who have been struggling to govern with a narrow majority, now down to just eight seats. The audacity of his made-for-reality-TV story seemed to many a new low at a time of widespread public distrust in the institution.

“Today was a solemn day,” Ethics Committee Chair Michael Guest, a Mississippi Republican who sponsored the expulsion resolution, told the Monitor. “I don’t think anyone takes any joy in having to vote to expel a fellow member.”

Rep. George Santos, a New York Republican who won election last fall on what was later revealed to be a largely fabricated biography, today became only the sixth member of the House of Representatives ever to be expelled from Congress.

He’s also the first member to be expelled who did not support the Confederacy or get convicted in court. 

Following the release of a damning report from the GOP-led House Ethics committee last month, nearly half of Republicans joined with all but a handful of their Democratic colleagues to oust Mr. Santos Friday morning. Notably, all members of the Republican leadership, including the new House speaker, voted against Mr. Santos’ expulsion. It requires a two-thirds House vote to expel a member.

In only the sixth expulsion ever from the U.S. House, the issue was not just ethical concerns around Mr. Santos’ conduct, but also how expelling someone prior to a criminal conviction could undermine Congress as an institution.

Many Republicans argued Mr. Santos should have his day in court, currently set for Sept. 9, 2024, before being removed. He has been indicted on a range of charges including conspiracy, wire fraud, theft of public money, and fraudulent application for and receipt of unemployment benefits.

Mr. Santos’ conduct presented a test for Congress, and particularly his Republican colleagues, who have been struggling to govern with a narrow majority, now down to just eight seats. The audacity of his made-for-reality-TV story seemed to many a new low at a time of widespread public distrust in the institution, concerns about government investigations becoming politicized, and a new brazenness among lawmakers who in earlier days might simply have resigned.

With the Department of Justice conducting a concurrent criminal investigation into Mr. Santos, some said the case should play out in court rather than in Congress – and that expelling him prior to conviction would set a dangerous precedent. Others argued that Mr. Santos also violated House rules and must be held accountable.

“Today was a solemn day,” Ethics Committee Chair Michael Guest, a Mississippi Republican who sponsored the expulsion resolution, told the Monitor upon walking out of the House chamber. “I don’t think anyone takes any joy in having to vote to expel a fellow member of Congress.”

Mr. Santos, who went by Anthony Devolder before his recent foray into politics, won election in a district Joe Biden carried by 8 points in 2020. He anchored his campaign in a storybook American Dream journey – the son of Brazilian immigrants who worked his way up to a career at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, accumulated more than a dozen properties by his mid-30s, and ran a charity that had purportedly rescued more than 2,500 dogs and cats.

The Wall Street firms, however, denied that he ever worked there. No records could be found of such extensive real estate holdings. And the IRS denied the existence of the purported charity, according to a December 2022 New York Times report. He also revised his claim to be Jewish, clarifying that he had meant he was “Jew-ish.”

A special election to fill Mr. Santos’ seat is expected to be held in February, giving Democrats an opportunity to try to flip the seat back to their party in a district President Joe Biden won in 2020. 

Spending in Atlantic City, Las Vegas

Three members of Congress were expelled in 1861 for supporting the Confederacy. Two others, in 1980 and 2002, were expelled after being convicted of bribery and other charges. All five were Democrats. 

While Mr. Santos has not been convicted of any crimes, the Ethics Committee’s 56-page report argued that the scope of his violations are “highly unusual and damning,” representing “fundamental ethical failings that go to the core of the legitimacy of the electoral process.”

The report, citing bank statements and other financial records, detailed a number of transactions that raised concerns about campaign funds being used for personal expenditures. These included $6,000 worth of purchases at a luxury shoe store on the heels of a large, unreported transfer of funds from his campaign accounts, as well as thousands of dollars of charges on the campaign’s dime at Atlantic City resorts, Las Vegas hotels and various spas – including one specializing in Botox. It also detailed a pattern of “repaying” himself for personal loans to his campaign, for which the committee could find no evidence that he had ever made.

U.S. Rep. Michael Guest listens to a reporter's question in Jackson, Mississippi, Nov. 8, 2022. The Republican chair of the House Committee on Ethics sponsored the resolution that expelled Republican George Santos Dec. 1, 2023.

Mr. Santos has blamed his treasurer’s bookkeeping for various campaign finance violations and reporting errors. This fraudulent reporting, the Ethics Committee said, not only misled the public but also helped him to meet benchmarks set by the national GOP. The party, which was looking to diversify its ranks, then invested in the campaign of the openly gay Latino millennial, helping him to victory. However, the report details texts, emails, and staffer accounts that show he was closely tracking his campaign finances. 

After failing to appear before the Ethics Committee, which said he “declined nearly every opportunity he was afforded under the Committee’s processes to provide a rebuttal to the allegations,” Mr. Santos is now accusing his colleagues of trampling due process. He says they are setting a dangerous precedent that will come back to haunt them and the institution.

“Are we to now assume that one is no longer innocent until proven guilty, and they are in fact guilty until proven innocent?” he asked in a floor speech Tuesday night. 

But the standard of “innocent until proven guilty” is a threshold used in criminal law before taking away someone’s right to liberty, says Democratic Rep. Daniel Goldman, who previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York.

“No one has a right to serve in Congress,” says Representative Goldman, who represents New York’s 10th congressional district.

Many Republicans disagree, however, with some saying Mr. Santos had been unfairly targeted in a body that has seen plenty of other scandals. 

In the floor debate last night, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz cited the case of GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter, who eventually pleaded guilty to misuse of campaign funds for extramarital affairs and other personal expenses, but who stayed in Congress for several years after his misdeeds were revealed before eventually resigning. He also asked why Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who has been indicted for accepting bribes from foreign officials, not only is still serving but also is receiving classified reports.

Mr. Guest, the Republican Ethics Committee chair, argued that Mr. Santos had been afforded the due process laid out in the Constitution, but that the New York congressman had failed to appear before the committee, testify under oath, provide a written response to the allegations filed by his fellow members, or provide many of the documents requested by the committee’s investigation. 

That didn’t satisfy Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, a leader within the House Freedom Caucus.

“Our members have forgotten that everybody is afforded due process under law, not due process under the Ethics Committee,” he said after the vote Friday. “What happened here today goes against the principles of our institutions.”

Mr. Santos: Done with “the circus”

Leading up to today’s vote, Mr. Santos struck a defiant tone.

“Bring it on,” he said Tuesday night on his way into the House chamber. 

“I’m done playing a part for the circus,” the congressman told reporters, though he refused to answer their questions about the report’s allegations. “I’m so bored of my colleagues trying to create something when there’s no there there.” 

In a three-hour conversation on X Spaces over the Thanksgiving holiday, hosted by Monica Matthews On Air, he called the report ”a political opposition hit piece at its best.”

“It was designed to smear me,” he said. The Ethics Committee is the sole House committee that is equally balanced between Democrats and Republicans, and the report was unanimous. 

“You want to expel me? I’ll wear it like a badge of honor,” said Mr. Santos, adding that his decision not to run for reelection was not an admission of guilt but that he had no interest in returning to a body full of “hypocrites,” “felons galore,” and “people with all sorts of sheisty backgrounds.”

During the X Spaces conversation, Democratic Rep. Robert Garcia of California chimed in and asked the congressman why he wouldn’t just apologize, saying it would go “a very, very long way.”

In January, less than a month into Mr. Santos’ freshman term, a Siena poll found that 78% of his constituents – including 71% of Republicans – wanted him to resign. 

“We just want to know that you feel awful for the things you have done,” said Representative Garcia. “I don’t want the apology for me, man. I think you owe the American public generally and your constituents, like, a direct apology.”

That never came, even after he was expelled Friday. He had uncharacteristically little to say as he walked out of the House chamber, got into a waiting Jaguar SUV, and was driven away.

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a typo in the year in which the last member of Congress was expelled prior to Mr. Santos.)