Editor’s Note: Norman Eisen is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the editor and co-author of “Overcoming Trumpery: How to Restore Ethics, the Rule of Law, and Democracy.” Colby Galliher is a senior research analyst at Brookings and a co-author of the book. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
The House Ethics Committee is often slow to act. But when it does — as is now the case with a new investigation into Rep. George Santos — resignations have often followed. Historical precedents, along with the severity and breadth of the allegations against Santos, suggests this might 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 pointed to four different areas of investigation: whether Santos “may have engaged in unlawful activity with respect to 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 firm providing fiduciary services; and/or engaged in sexual misconduct towards an individual seeking employment in his congressional office.”
Those allegations, if proven, are violations of the House’s code of official conduct — which require members to “behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House” — and of federal laws that the committee is entrusted with minding as well.
On Thursday, Santos’ office acknowledged the investigation on Twitter and said he “is fully cooperating,” adding, “There will be no further comment made at this time.” And while he has thus far resisted mounting calls to resign despite controversies over the veracity of his academic and professional record, ties to shady business operations and questions about his campaign finances, history suggests that the committee’s nascent investigation may erode his resolve.
Scandal-plagued members from both sides of the aisle have decided to leave Congress rather than endure a grueling ethics investigation. Former Rep. Patrick Meehan, a Pennsylvania Republican, who had been a member of the Ethics Committee before it opened a probe into allegations that he used taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment case involving a former staffer, ended up resigning in 2018.
Meehan, who was married at the time, initially denied the former staffer’s allegations after the settlement became public, but he ultimately went on the record about their interactions. Calling the former staffer “a soul mate,” he conceded in an interview with Philadelphia public radio station WHYY that though he sought “never (to) cross that line” with her, “it was something that, from time to time, I struggled with.” He also promised to repay the US Treasury the $39,000 of taxpayer money he used to make the settlement within 30 days of his resignation.
Former Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat, promptly resigned in 2011 after the committee began a preliminary inquiry of his conduct. Weiner, who had tweeted an inappropriate photo of himself and admitted to exchanging lewd messages and photos with a number of women, prompted Nancy Pelosi, House minority leader at the time, and then-Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, to call for an Ethics Committee investigation.
President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner echoed those lawmakers’ condemnation of Weiner’s conduct — all but assuring that the bipartisan committee would heed calls for a full-fledged investigation. The committee never had the opportunity to launch a formal investigation, however, as Weiner resigned three days after the preliminary inquiry began.
Causality is elusive in these and other similar cases — did the member in question resign because the optics were too politically damaging? Or was the financial burden of a legal defense too onerous? In Weiner’s case, the former congressman told Politico that the committee’s preliminary inquiry — and the prospect of a full-fledged investigation — was the reason he stepped down.
More fundamentally, resignation ends the committee’s jurisdiction, and so concludes these politically painful inquisitions. In a statement declaring his resignation, Meehan explained his choice by stating, “While I do believe I would be exonerated of any wrongdoing, I also did not want to put my staff through the rigors of an Ethics Committee investigation and believed it was best for them to have a head start on new employment rather than being caught up in an inquiry. And since I have chosen to resign, the inquiry will not become a burden to taxpayers and committee staff.”
For all these reasons, congressional history is replete with other examples of members resigning upon the announcement of an investigation by the Ethics Committee.
Whatever happens next, Santos has done what so little in contemporary American politics can: unite a sizable chunk of Congress and elicit bipartisan condemnation. That is foremost evidenced by the fact that the Ethics Committee, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, voted unanimously to open an investigation. Beyond that, a number of Republican colleagues from Santos’ own state have called on him to resign, as have Republican officials in Nassau County in the 3rd Congressional District.
Even House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who must balance the mounting public pressure to crack down on Santos with securing every vote of his slim majority, has claimed that Republicans “will remove him” if the Ethics Committee determines that the embattled congressman committed a crime.
In that regard, an Ethics Committee investigation need not interfere with and could indeed complement any federal and state law enforcement investigations of Santos’ conduct. The Justice Department has asked the Federal Election Commission to pause any action against Santos and provide relevant documents to federal prosecutors instead, 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 intend to revive fraud charges against Santos in a case that had previously been suspended because police were unable to locate him.
While these investigations unfold, they do not render moot the Ethics Committee’s own inquiry.
There is a 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 heft.
And, if the evidence points to violations of federal or state law, the ethics body, like other House committees, can bolster these external investigations by passing on its investigative findings to the relevant law enforcement bodies. Indeed, the January 6 committee achieved one of its most impactful legacies by making criminal referrals to the Department of Justice.
The persistent drip of scandals has so far failed to topple Santos’ congressional career. But we could look back on the Ethics Committee’s announcement and see in hindsight that the congressman’s days were numbered.