Note to the Editor: Norman Eisen is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and editor and co-author of “Defeating Trump: How to Restore Ethics, Rule of Law, and Democracy.” Colby Galliher is a senior research analyst at Brookings and co-author of the book. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
The House Ethics Committee is often slow to act. But when he does – as is now the case with the new investigation into Representative George Santos – he often resigns afterwards. Historical precedents, as well as the severity and breadth of the allegations against Santos, suggest that this could be the beginning of the end for the congressman from New York.
On Thursday, the committee announced it was moving forward with the probe and cited four different areas of investigation: whether Santos “may have engaged in illegal activities in connection with his 2022 congressional campaign; failed to properly disclose required information on statements filed with the House; violated federal conflict of interest laws in connection with his role in a fiduciary services firm; and/or engaging in sexual misconduct towards a person seeking employment in his congressional office.”
Those allegations, if proven, are violations of the House’s official code of conduct — which requires members to “at all times conduct themselves in a manner that reflects credit on the House” — and federal laws being considered by the committee too. .
Thursday, Santos’ office admitted the investigation on Twitter and said it is “fully cooperating,” adding, “There will be no further comment at this time.” And while he has so far resisted calls to resign despite controversies about the veracity of his academic and professional records, ties to shady business operations and questions about his campaign finances, history suggests the committee’s emerging investigation could erode his resolve. .
Scandalous members from both sides of the aisle have decided to leave Congress rather than endure an ethics investigation. Former Representative Patrick Meehan, Republican of Pennsylvania, who was a member of the Ethics Committee before it opened an investigation into allegations that he used taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment case involving a former staffer, has successfully quit in 2018.
Meehan, who was married at the time, initially denied the ex-teammate’s allegations after the settlement became public, but eventually went on the record about their interactions. Calling the former team “soul mates,” he admitted in an interview with Philadelphia public radio station WHY that while he tried “never (to) cross that line” with her, “it’s something that I struggled from time to time. le.” He also promised to repay the $39,000 of taxpayer money he used to make the deal within 30 days of his resignation.
Former Representative Anthony Weiner, Democrat of New York, promptly resigned in 2011 after the committee began a preliminary investigation into his conduct. Weiner, who tweeted an inappropriate photo of himself and admitted to exchanging false messages and photos with several women, prompted then-House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and then-Rep. Steve Israel, Democrat of New York, to seek an investigation by the Ethics Committee.
President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner echoed those lawmakers’ criticism of Weiner’s behavior — but assured the bipartisan committee heeded calls for a full investigation. The committee never had a chance to launch a formal investigation, however, as Weiner resigned three days after the preliminary inquiry began.
Causation is elusive in these and other similar cases — did the member in question quit because the optics were too politically damaging? Or was the financial burden of legal protection too great? In Weiner’s case, the former adviser told Politico that the committee’s preliminary inquiry — and the prospect of a full investigation — was the reason he resigned.
More fundamentally, resignation ends the committee’s jurisdiction, thus ending these painful political inquiries. In a statement announcing his resignation, Meehan explained his choice by saying, “While I believe I would be exonerated of any wrongdoing, I also did not want my staff to be put through the rigors of an Ethics Committee investigation and I believed that it would be better. that they would be ahead of new employment rather than being caught up in an inquiry. And since I have chosen to resign, the inquiry will not be a burden on taxpayers and committee staff.”
For all these reasons, congressional history is littered with other examples of members resigning after the Ethics Committee has announced an investigation.
Whatever happens next, Santos has done what is possible in contemporary American politics: unite a large chunk of Congress and receive bipartisan criticism. That is mainly evident by the fact that the Ethics Committee, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, voted unanimously to open an investigation. Moreover, some of Santos’ state Republican colleagues have asked him to resign, as have Republican officials in Nassau County’s 3rd Congressional District.
Even House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who will have to balance mounting public pressure to fight Santos with getting every vote for his slim majority, has claimed that Republicans will “get it out of him” if the Ethics Committee finds that he did the partner in crime.
To that end, an investigation by the Ethics Committee would not necessarily interfere with and indeed could complement any federal and state law enforcement investigations into Santos’ conduct. The Justice Department asked the Federal Election Commission to suspend any action against Santos and instead provide relevant documents to federal prosecutors, the Washington Post reported. Federal prosecutors in New York are also investigating the lawmaker’s finances, a source told CNN, and Brazilian authorities said they intended to revive fraud charges against Santos in a case previously suspended because the police unable to find him.
Santos responded to the allegations in an interview with the New York Post, saying, “I’m not a criminal here – not here or in Brazil or in any jurisdiction in the world. Certainly not.”
Although these investigations do come forward, they leave no argument about the Ethics Committee’s own investigation.
There is precedent for committee investigations to proceed alongside law enforcement investigations or even after those probes have concluded. The panel enjoys unique fact-finding and jurisdictional strength.
And, if the evidence shows violations of federal or state law, the ethics body, like other House committees, can strengthen these external investigations by forwarding its investigative findings to the relevant law enforcement bodies. Indeed, the January 6 committee achieved one of its most influential legacies by making criminal referrals to the Department of Justice.
The constant stream of scandals failed to disrupt Santos’ congressional career. But we could look back at the announcement of the Ethics Committee and see that the assembly’s days were numbered.