The indictment of Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) is unfolding at a bad time for House Republicans, who had hoped to use this week to pressure Democrats on the debt ceiling and instead are being forced to react to the news that a member of their conference is facing 13 criminal charges.
Santos, who for months has been a source of headaches for House GOP leadership, was arraigned in federal court Wednesday on charges of wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making materially false statements to the House of Representatives. Prosecutors accused him of misleading donors, fraudulently receiving unemployment benefits and lying on his financial disclosures.
Santos pleaded not guilty and told reporters “I believe I’m innocent” after the arraignment.
The New York Republican has been the target of scrutiny since last year amid questions about his background and finances, and Wednesday’s news once again thrust him into the spotlight and amped up pressure on GOP leaders to take steps against the freshman lawmaker.
But this episode in the Santos saga comes at a particularly precarious moment for House Republicans.
The House GOP conference entered this week with the debt ceiling battle on its mind after picking up momentum in the past two weeks.
Republicans secured a legislative victory when they passed, albeit narrowly, a bill last month to raise the borrowing limit and implement trillions of dollars in spending cuts. And President Biden finally agreed to sit down with congressional leaders, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), for the first time since February.
After Tuesday’s high-profile gathering at the White House — and ahead of another meeting set for Friday — Republicans had hoped to keep the focus on the debt limit to pressure Democrats into getting on board with spending cuts.
Republican lawmakers also held a much-touted press conference laying out findings from their investigation into the Biden family’s business dealings. And, after a last-minute scramble, the conference appeared to have gotten the support it needed to pass its highly anticipated border bill.
But Santos’s indictment quickly took over, drawing widespread headlines, eating up hours of cable news coverage and sparking more calls for the congressman’s resignation or expulsion.
“The people of New York’s 3rd district deserve a voice in congress. George Santos should be immediately expelled from Congress and a special election initiated at the soonest possible date,” Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) told CNN that if the House Ethics Committee — which is investigating Santos — determines that the congressman should be expelled, he is “absolutely on board.”
“I’m surprised he’s still here,” Zinke added.
At least five New York Republican representatives previously called for Santos to resign.
Santos, however, appears unlikely to leave Congress anytime soon. The New York Republican struck a defiant tone outside a Long Island courthouse after his arraignment, telling reporters he will not resign, and House GOP leaders have said they will let the legal process play out before taking action against him.
“There is a legal process. The charges just came out; we just saw some of them this morning. And so in America, there’s a presumption of innocence, but they’re serious charges. He’s gonna have to go through the legal process,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said.
Republicans have a slim majority in the House, making Santos a key vote on any partisan legislation brought to the floor. In remarks to reporters on Wednesday, he said he was heading back to Washington to vote Thursday on the border bill.
According to House rules, lawmakers are allowed to continue serving in Congress despite being charged.
Santos is running for reelection in 2024. But in a hit to his bid — and deepening the Santos controversy — McCarthy on Wednesday told reporters he will not support the New Yorker’s campaign.
“Santos has a lot going on. I think he has other things to focus on in his life than running for stuff,” he said.
The indictment unsealed against Santos comprises seven counts of wire fraud, three counts of money laundering, one count of theft of public funds and two counts of making materially false statements to the House of Representatives. He could face prison time if convicted.
Legal experts suggest the bulk of the congressman’s exposure relates to prosecutors’ accusation that Santos misled political donors for personal benefit.
According to prosecutors, an unnamed political consultant, at Santos’s direction, gave prospective donors false information about a company to which he wanted them to direct funds, while indicating the money would be used as independent expenditures to aid Santos’s candidacy.
Santos controlled that company, and he instead transferred $74,000 to personal bank accounts, spending it on luxury designer clothing, credit card payments and transfers to personal associates, the indictment alleges.
Rather than bringing campaign finance violations, the Justice Department charged Santos on wire fraud and money laundering counts.
“The evidence is really as close to airtight as you can get,” said Chris Mattei, a former federal prosecutor who specializes in financial corruption, noting the indictment indicates prosecutors possess texts and emails between Santos, the consultant and donors.
The remaining charges revolve around two other alleged schemes.
Prosecutors accused Santos of fraudulently receiving more than $24,000 in unemployment benefits after falsely claiming he was unemployed during the early months of the pandemic. The indictment further alleges Santos made a series of false statements on financial disclosures during his two congressional campaigns.
“There were a lot of allegations sort of swirling around him. What they seem to have settled on are really straightforward allegations,” said Sterling Marchand, a partner at the law firm Baker Botts.
A guilty verdict on those allegations likely would conclude Santos’s congressional career — and mark the end of House GOP leadership’s months-long headache.
On Tuesday, after news broke that prosecutors filed charges against Santos, McCarthy told reporters he would deal with the New York Republican as he has with lawmakers indicted in the past. He specifically cited former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), who stepped down from his seat in March 2022 after being found guilty of three felonies.
“Just like we had a member, Fortenberry, he had the same ability; I removed him from committees, but he was found guilty and I told him he needed to resign,” McCarthy said. “That is my policies and principles on this, and I’d follow the same pattern.”