Even Fraudsters Like George Santos Deserve a Fair Shake

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By Ketrin Agustine

Even Fraudsters Like George Santos Deserve a Fair Shake

Before we wallow in the downfall of George Santos, allow me a toast of appreciation to the freshly defrocked lawmaker and his fellow lawmakers. It takes a lot to get booted from the House by one’s colleagues, but the New York Republican really applied himself. And while his 11 very weird months in office were a stain on American democracy, here’s hoping his departure serves to reassure a politically disillusioned nation that there is a level of deception, corruption and lunacy too extra even for Congress. It is a nice reminder that, on special occasions, most lawmakers still know how to do the right thing.

Now to the wallowing! It was frustrating for many Americans, including some prominent Republicans, that it took so long to rid the House of this egregious fraudster, fabulist and — if that sizzling report from the House Ethics Committee is any indication — future felon. The Ethics Committee opened its investigation in March. In May, the congressman was indicted on 13 federal charges, including fraud and money laundering. In October, 10 more charges were piled on. And still the House failed twice to expel Santos. Even on this third try, on Friday, several of his colleagues stuck by him — including all five top members of Republican leadership. (Nice moral compass, eh?)

But here’s the thing: The process played out as it should. When expulsion is on the table, lawmakers are wise to chart a steady, methodical, small-c conservative path. There’s a reason Mr. Santos is only the third member voted off the island since the Civil War. Lawmakers are not above the law and should be expected to uphold high ethical standards. (Stop laughing!) But it is largely up to their constituents to hold them accountable.

Only in the most egregious cases should other lawmakers move to superimpose their will over that of voters, and even then only after due process. Without clear triggers — such as a criminal conviction or a meticulous report by a bipartisan committee tasked with such matters — the temptation to wield expulsion like a partisan weapon would become overwhelming. I mean, it’s bad enough that Marjorie Taylor Greene has taken to filing articles of impeachment against anyone who looks at her funny.

There has been much talk about Republicans’ hesitation to remove Mr. Santos for partisan reasons. But the delay in rooting him out didn’t split cleanly along party lines. New York Republicans wanted the guy gone worse than anyone. And several Democrats were among those blocking earlier expulsion efforts. Among them was the Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin, a constitutional professor and lawyer, who reasoned, “This would be a terrible precedent to set, expelling people who have not been convicted of a crime and without internal due process.”

He’s not wrong. Consider the 13 Republicans who filed an expulsion resolution in October against Representative Jamaal Bowman, the New York Democrat accused of falsely pulling a fire alarm in the Capitol to delay a House vote. (He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after initially claiming he was trying to open a nearby door.) Was this partisan nonsense? Yes, it was. But partisan nonsense is increasingly the norm in Congress — the more offensively nonsensical the better, as some of the professional disrupters see it.

Once the Ethics Committee’s report detonated, Mr. Raskin boarded the expulsion train, along with several other previously reluctant colleagues.

Through the years, there have been failed and abandoned attempts to oust lawmakers over all sorts of issues — including being a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (See: Senator Reed Smoot, 1907.) My favorite: In 1856, Representative Preston Brooks, a South Carolina Democrat, resigned rather than face an expulsion vote for beating Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts Republican, with a cane. South Carolina voters promptly re-elected him.

In 2021, a gaggle of Democrats backed a resolution to expel Ms. Greene over social-media activity from her pre-Congress days, in which she spread gross conspiracy theories and seemed to advocate violence against Democratic officials. That effort went nowhere. Which is probably a good thing. When it comes to lawmakers saying terrible things, before or after election, there is an awful lot of subjectivity as to what might qualify as expulsion worthy.

Indeed, Mr. Santos is a world-class liar. But it seems unlikely the House would have moved against him if his deception had not allegedly veered into serious criminality. Lying, hate speech, unhinged behavior — such sins may get a lawmaker censured, reprimanded or kicked off committees. But the bar for expulsion should remain higher and clearer.

As it stands, Mr. Santos’s case was subjected to a lower bar than those of the House’s two most recent past congressmen who were expelled: Jim Traficant in 2002 and Michael Myers in 1980. In both those cases, House lawmakers waited to act until after their scandal-ridden colleagues had been convicted in court — a distinction about which Mr. Santos and his defenders have been whining loudly.

On Thursday, the eve of his expulsion vote, he called a news conference to snivel about unfairness and announce that he was introducing his own expulsion resolution against Mr. Bowman. “Let’s talk about consistency,” huffed Mr. Santos.

Consistency? To quote the great Inigo Montoya, I don’t think that word means what Mr. Santos thinks it means.

Any suggestion that this has been a rush to judgment is absurd. The House has a well-established bipartisan, deliberative process for investigating allegations of impropriety. And the report on Mr. Santos that the Ethics Committee adopted — unanimously — was a loo-loo, laying out the Botox and OnlyFans details of what the investigators termed “serious and pervasive campaign finance violations and fraudulent activity.”

In holding Mr. Santos accountable, the House proceeded with extreme caution, waiting for the results of a formal investigation. Although none of us should breathe too easy. Shamelessness is a prerequisite for lawmakers in this position. (Otherwise, they’d have the decency to resign and spare the nation the spectacle.) And it’s worth remembering that, after being expelled on an even more resounding vote of 420 to 1, Jim Traficant stood for re-election a few months later. From prison. And received 15 percent of the vote.

Democracy is messy. It’s supposed to be. Enjoy the wins when you can.

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