House votes to refer Santos matter to Ethics panel

McCarthy urges committee to act quickly

Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., leaves the Capitol  last Thursday.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., leaves the Capitol last Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 17, 2023 at 6:17pm

The House voted Wednesday to refer a Democrat-led resolution, which would expel indicted New York GOP Rep. George Santos, to the Ethics Committee. 

In a 221-204 party-line vote, House Republicans supported Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s decision to refer the expulsion resolution to the committee instead of holding a direct vote on the matter. 

McCarthy, R-Calif., has defended the move as providing Santos with “due process.” 

Santos was indicted last week on 13 federal criminal charges, including wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making false statements to the House. He voted along with the rest of his party to refer the expulsion resolution to Ethics. 

When the charges were first announced, McCarthy said Santos has a right to serve while the Justice Department case against him plays out — as other past members who were indicted have — but that he would ask him to resign if he were convicted. 

Now McCarthy said he wants the Ethics Committee, which has the authority to recommend expulsion or other actions be taken against Santos, to move “quickly,” ideally before the Justice Department case is resolved. 

“We have a responsibility [of] our own. He's been indicted,” McCarthy told reporters Wednesday. “We have not done anything prior to their investigation. Their investigation is done. Now [the Justice Department] can go to their court. But I don’t want to wait around for how long a court case could take.” 

Expelling Santos would put a dent in McCarthy’s narrow four-seat majority until a special election can be held in New York’s 3rd District. Another GOP victory there would not be guaranteed. 

Santos won his 2022 election by 8 percentage points. He ran and lost by 13 points in 2020 before redistricting. President Joe Biden carried the district by 8 points in 2020.

The Ethics Committee opened an investigation into Santos on Feb. 28, but it’s unclear what, if any, investigative actions they have taken since the panel does not comment publicly on its work. 

The committee said it would be investigating whether Santos engaged in unlawful campaign activity, failed to disclose required financial information or violated federal conflict of interest laws — matters the Justice Department also investigated. 

But the Ethics Committee is also investigating an allegation that Santos engaged in sexual misconduct towards an individual seeking employment in his congressional office, which goes beyond the scope of the DOJ probe. 

Typically if the Justice Department is investigating a member the Ethics Committee would pause its own investigation until those proceedings conclude. 

McCarthy asking the Ethics Committee to move ahead of DOJ would flout that precedent, but he’s admitted the decision is up to the committee. 

“I can't control Ethics one way or another,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “But what I would encourage the Ethics Committee to do is to do this quickly, to look at this. Don't play time out. There's enough facts.”

Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, chair of the Ethics investigative subcommittee in charge of Santos' case, said he could not comment on whether the panel is able to conduct its own investigation while the DOJ case proceeds.

"I voted to refer it back to the committee because I think it's important for the committee to be able to do its job," he said.

Procedural moves 

Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., introduced the resolution to expel Santos on Feb. 9, long before Santos’ indictment and even before the Ethics Committee opened its investigation. 

On Tuesday Garcia raised a question of privilege on the House floor in an effort to force a vote on the resolution. He argued he was taking action since GOP leaders would not. 

House rules allow certain legislation, including resolutions to expel members of Congress, to be considered privileged, which means a member can force a vote over objections of leadership. When a member raises a question of privilege on the floor, House leaders must schedule a vote on it within two legislative days. 

But leaders have procedural options to avoid holding a direct vote, like moving to table or referring the measure back to committee.

McCarthy’s successful move to refer Garcia’s resolution to the Ethics Committee – which already has jurisdiction over the measure – only required a simple majority vote.

It quashed Democrats’ plans to hold an up or down vote on expelling Santos, which would have taken a two-thirds majority.

“George Santos is a serial fraudster. He does not belong anywhere near the House of Representatives,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said in an interview with MSNBC Tuesday, expressing support for Garcia’s move to expel Santos.

Santos “lied about everything, lied about his life, lied about his jobs, lied about his finances, lied about his professional experiences, lied about being Jewish,” Jeffries added. “He perpetrated a fraud on the people of New York. He was elected under false pretenses.” 

Santos’ circumstances are fairly unique compared to other members who’ve been indicted on criminal charges over the years. But no lawmaker has ever been expelled based solely on a criminal indictment. 

The Constitution empowers Congress to expel lawmakers who engaged in “disorderly” behavior, but the authority has been used sparingly. 

The House has only expelled five members, according to the House historian. The first three of those expulsions occurred in 1861 to punish members who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. 

The other two members who were expelled had been convicted of crimes. In 1980, the House expelled Pennsylvania Democrat Michael Myers after his bribery conviction. And in 2002, the House expelled Ohio Democrat James Traficant after he was convicted of conspiracy to commit bribery, fraud, receipt of illegal gratuities, obstruction of justice, filing false tax returns and racketeering.

Calls for resignation 

Numerous Democrats and some Republicans have called on Santos to resign, but he has said he plans to remain in office and run for reelection next year as he fights the charges. 

Expulsion would be a step further and one that Republicans on Wednesday were not ready to take. Democratic Reps. Chrissy Houlahan and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington and all five Democrats who sit on the Ethics Committee voted “present.”

Jeffries in the MSNBC interview said Republicans would have to decide whether they wanted to hold Santos accountable under the Constitution or not. 

“It's going to be interesting to see how the so-called moderates in terms of New York House Republicans vote,” he said. “They've all said that they want him out.”

Ultimately all of Santos’ fellow New York GOP freshmen — Anthony D'Esposito, Nick LaLota, Nick Langworthy, Mike Lawler, Marc Molinaro and Brandon Williams — who have called on him to resign voted to refer the expulsion resolution to the Ethics Committee.

D'Esposito, who made the motion to refer the resolution to committee, said he would have voted to expel Santos but supported the referral because the whip count on the resolution itself made clear there weren't enough GOP votes to reach the two-thirds threshold needed for expulsion.

"There are people that feel that George Santos is due his due process. I don't agree with that," he said. "I think that he should have been gone a long time ago. I was one of the first to call for his resignation. I believe he should be expelled."

D'Esposito said he expects Ethics to move quickly to produce a report and recommendations on Santos despite the fact the committee's investigations typically move slowly.

"The speaker and leadership has made it very clear that this needs to be expeditious, needs to be concise, and needs to be done quickly," he said. "And quite frankly, my hope today is that this will pressure someone to resign."

LaLota said in a statement he also would have preferred "to expel the sociopath scam artist," but that the referral to Ethics is "the next best option" since there were not enough votes.

"We expect a result within 60 days and for the terrible liar to be gone, by resignation or expulsion, before August recess,” he said.

Lawler said in a statement that a member of Congress has never been expelled without a criminal conviction or committee referral. 

“If the Democrats were serious about his expulsion, they would work with us to get a report and referral from the Ethics Committee, rather than offer a political resolution that has no chance of passing the House,” he said.

Lawler repeated his call for Santos to resign, saying his “embarrassing and unbecoming” conduct is a distraction from House Republicans’ work. 

"One thing is clear — whether George Santos is convicted, pleads guilty as part of a plea agreement, or is found to have violated the rules of the House by the Ethics Committee — he will not be serving as a member of the House much longer," he said. "For that, we can all be grateful."

Molinaro said in a statement that he remains “steadfast” in pushing Santos to resign and that his vote to formally refer his case to the Ethics Committee will “begin the process of removing George Santos from this sacred institution.”

“George Santos should not be a Member of Congress. He has irrevocably lost the trust of his constituents and colleagues,” Molinaro added. “I expect the Ethics Committee to conduct an immediate and swift review.”

Williams said in a statement that he backed the referral to Ethics because “the rule of law and due process are cornerstones of our society — these principles protect the innocent and the guilty alike.”

Meanwhile, Williams said he’s encouraging House and New York GOP leaders “to immediately find and get behind George’s replacement, ASAP!” 

“George’s days are numbered in the House and NY-03 voters deserve an A+ candidate to represent them,” he said.

The other New York Republicans’ offices did not respond to requests for comment. 

Caitlin Reilly contributed to this report.