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How George Santos’s federal indictment could shake up Congress

The Republican Congress member’s indictment could make things a lot tougher for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Santos surrounded by people holding cameras and camera phones.
US Rep. George Santos (R-NY) on April 4, 2023, in New York City.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Rep. George Santos (R-NY) pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges of wire fraud and money laundering in federal court in New York and was released on a $500,000 bond.

Federal prosecutors charged Santos with defrauding campaign donors by soliciting them to give money to support his campaign and converting those funds for personal use, including the purchase of designer clothing and paying off his credit card debt. Santos is also accused of unemployment fraud by receiving $24,000 in unemployment benefits at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic while he had a full-time job at an investment firm and lying about his income in documents filed with the clerk of the House of Representatives.

The federal charges come after Santos has faced a staggering number of scandals in his short political career. In November, the first-term Republican from Long Island won a swing district and, before he was sworn in in January, was exposed as a serial liar and fraudster. What started off as a series of revelations about how Santos had faked his entire resume, including fabricating his work history and education, turned into a barrage of allegations of fraud, ranging from campaign finance violations to writing bad checks to Amish dog breeders. Seemingly every day for weeks, there was a new revelation about his resume or his past, and they all were outlandish. As soon as one could grasp that Santos had falsely claimed to be the Jewish descendant of refugees from the Holocaust and then insisted that he only said he was “Jew-ish,” Santos was implicated in a 2017 scheme to skim debit card information from ATMs in Seattle.

The constant drip of scandal, along with the Mad Libs nature of what was alleged, turned Santos into an overnight national celebrity. Television crews staked out his office, and he was a staple of late-night monologues. It was an unprecedented rise to fame for an unknown first-term member of Congress. It was also an unprecedented headache for his colleagues, and Santos faced calls to resign before he had been formally sworn in to office. Within weeks of him arriving on Capitol Hill, members from both parties were texting each other memes making fun of him.

In the short term, Santos’s indictment won’t change a thing. Traditionally, members of Congress give up committee assignments after being criminally charged. However, Santos already gave up his committee positions in January after a meeting with Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).

McCarthy indicated that the status quo would remain while speaking to reporters on Tuesday. “We’ll just follow the same pattern we always have. If a person is indicted, they’re not on committees, they have the right to vote, but they have to go to trial.” However, McCarthy made clear that a criminal conviction would mark the end of his patience for Santos. Citing the 2022 case of former Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, McCarthy said “he was found guilty and then I told him he needed to resign.” There is ample precedent for members being expelled if they don’t resign after a criminal conviction. Most recently, Democrat James Traficant of Ohio was expelled from Congress when he refused to resign after being convicted for taking bribes and racketeering in 2002.

Santos had been persona non grata for New York Republicans since the scandal first broke. First-term New York Republicans from swing districts like Mike Lawler and Marc Molinaro reiterated on Tuesday their longstanding calls for Santos to resign. Lawler told reporters that if Santos “had any decency and dignity, he would resign.” This attitude was shared by elected officials throughout Santos’s district, who for months have called for him to resign. In an April interview with Vox, Pam Panzenbeck, the Republican mayor of Glen Cove, New York, expressed her absolute scorn for Santos. She described him as having “no sense of reality” and added that she went to other Republican members of Congress from Long Island for help when she had constituent issues.

A resignation by Santos would present new political peril for McCarthy. Republicans have a narrow five-seat majority in the House before a potential Santos resignation. McCarthy was only able to have his debt limit proposal pass by one vote in April when Santos voted at the last minute to support it. Losing Santos’s vote would be a loss in and of itself, but it would be magnified by the likelihood that Democrats would take the seat in a special election triggered if Santos resigns. Even if Santos were scandal-free, the district, which Joe Biden won by 10 points in 2020, would have been a top Democratic target. With the stain of Santos’s scandals, Democrats would be heavily favored in any special election.

The indictment is not the only legal peril that Santos faces. There are still other investigations pending, including from state and local prosecutors as well as the Federal Election Commission. Further, it’s unlikely that the charges filed on Wednesday will encompass all of his potential liability in federal court.

After all, Santos’s issues go far beyond what he described as putting “a little bit of fluff” on his resume when he falsely claimed to work for firms like Goldman Sachs and to have graduated from Baruch College. Santos reported donating $700,000 of his own money to his congressional campaign in 2022 and had a total net worth in the millions only years after being evicted for non-payment from an apartment in Queens. He also piled up an unusual number of campaign expenses of precisely $199.99, just one cent less than what would be legally required for his campaign to provide receipts. He has also faced allegations of more petty fraud including raising $3,000 through a GoFundMe for the service dog of a disabled veteran before pocketing the money.

Santos’s spokesperson, Naysa Woomer, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Update, May 10, 2:45 am ET: This story has been updated with details of Santos’s not guilty plea.

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