The Simplest Lesson in the Expulsion of George Santos? Ethics Enforcement Works

Image
George Santos looking up at the camera from the House floor
Representative George Santos (R-N.Y.) on the House Floor at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, DC, on Thursday, June 22, 2023. Photo by Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Alamy Live News

Rep. George Santos has become the sixth member in the history of the House of Representatives to be expelled from the chamber. After two failed attempts to expel him, the third time stuck.  

What made the third time a charm? A deeply incriminating report, issued by the House Ethics Committee, detailing the extent of his wrongdoing.  

It would be hard to distill the sheer magnitude of Rep. Santos’s corruption better than the Ethics Committee did. Rep. Santos “blatantly stole from his campaign,” “deceived donors into providing what they thought were contributions to his campaign but were in fact payments for his personal benefit,” and “continues to flout his statutory financial disclosure obligations.”  

He “sought to fraudulently exploit every aspect of his House candidacy for his own personal financial profit.” He used “connections to high value donors and other political campaigns to obtain additional funds for himself through fraudulent or otherwise questionable business dealings.”  

There are a lot of questions to reckon with as the country processes how someone like Rep. Santos could ascend to power. But there is one thing we do not need question: We know that ethics enforcement works.  

The path to Rep. Santos’s ultimate expulsion was a rocky one: He first faced two votes for expulsion, each falling short of the two-thirds majority needed for his ouster. This perhaps was unsurprising to many: Out of the more than 11,000 people who have served in the House, only five other members have been expelled. Three were expelled for fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War; the other two were only expelled after facing convictions for various bribery and fraud related charges.   

No member of Congress had ever been expelled for allegations alone. But this fact is why the investigations by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics and the House Ethics Committee’s investigative subcommittee proved so crucial. They provided the legal heft needed, absent a conviction in a court of law, to persuade other lawmakers of Rep. Santos’s unfitness for holding a position of public service. 

The ethics investigations, and importantly, their transparency, tipped the scales. Without them, it seems possible that Rep. Santos would have continued to serve out his term while waiting for the outcome of his fraud trial and other criminal investigations into his conduct. The efficiency, expediency, and transparency of the ethics investigations allowed for real accountability much sooner than the public could have hoped for from the criminal justice system or other entities investigating his criminal conduct.  

The details presented in the Ethics Committee report and their revelation are a bitter pill to take. Seemingly from the moment Rep. Santos decided to run for Congress, he also decided to lie to voters, to use whatever power and connections he had for his own personal gain, and to blatantly violate the public’s trust. It is a horrific tale of greed and corruption. And for almost a year, he was allowed to serve in one of the most powerful positions in the country, if not the world, as a Member of Congress. 

With more and better ethics enforcement, however, this situation can be prevented. Enforcement of ethics violations big and small can act as a deterrent for bad actors. Continuing to empower OCE and the Ethics Committee to use their full investigative toolbox to root out corruption is vital. And importantly, the Senate needs its own independent ethics enforcement body to help with ethics enforcement and make sure something like this does not happen in the other chamber of Congress.  

Taking these steps will ensure that another Rep. Santos situation will be nipped in the bud, or at least will be resolved swiftly and with transparency.

Delaney is a Senior Legal Counsel on CLC's Ethics team.