Calmes: George Santos deserves to be expelled, but Bob Menendez? Not yet

FILE - Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., talks to reporters as House Republicans hold a caucus meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. Santos has said he expected to be expelled from Congress following a scathing report by the House Ethics Committee that found substantial evidence of lawbreaking by the New York Republican. The comments on Friday, Nov. 24, came during a three-hour conversation on X Spaces in which Santos lashed out at colleagues and described the committee's report as "slanderous." (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib, File)
Rep. George Santos, the fabulist also known as George Anthony Devolder. (Mariam Zuhaib / Associated Press)
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‘Bye, George!

Rep. George Santos, the cartoonish New York Republican, compulsive liar, alleged fraudster and Ferragamo-fancying Botox buff, said on Monday that he won’t resign. On Friday, the House cast a historically rare but well-deserved vote to expel him.

The fabulist also known as George Anthony Devolder refused to go quietly — no surprise there — as he showed in his recent rant that his colleagues are a bunch of drunken, philandering “felons” unsuited to judge him. (Irony being dead, he said this even as he protested that he should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty.)

Next it will be the Senate’s turn: Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who allegedly fancied gold bars and bundled cash for his abuses of office, should be sanctioned too.

Yet for now Menendez deserves a lesser penalty: censure. The difference between his deserts and Santos’ underscores both Congress’ wide discretion under the Constitution to police itself and its need, in practice, to balance institutional integrity and the voters’ will.

Not that Menendez is the lesser sinner — the third-term, soon-to-be-70 senator has operated under a cloud far longer than Santos, a freshman half his age. Menendez beat federal bribery charges in 2017, thanks to a hung jury, and then was “severely admonished” by the Senate Ethics Committee. Apparently unabashed, he soon allegedly engaged in corrupt schemes involving New Jersey businessmen and the Egyptian government, schemes that got him indicted again in September. A conspiracy charge was added in October.

Read more: New York's Rep. George Santos says he expects to be kicked out in House expulsion vote

Menendez, like Santos, insists on his innocence. Their alleged crimes are similarly egregious, though Menendez’s are arguably worse. Neither man has gone to trial; Menendez’s is tentatively scheduled for May, Santos’ for Sept. 9. Both must be considered innocent for now.

But that is a legal distinction, central to the rule of law. Congress’ constitutional right to “punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member,” is a political matter. It’s not dependent on legalities — ethical wrongdoing and “disorderly Behavior” can suffice. The Supreme Court has said as much even as it’s said little else over the centuries about Congress’ disciplinary prerogatives, out of respect for the separation of powers.

For the House to expel Santos is a big deal. In U.S. history, just 20 members of the House and Senate have been voted out, 17 for disloyalty to the union at the time of the Civil War. Santos is only the sixth House member ever expelled, including only two others since the Civil War. Those members were ejected, in 1980 and 2002, after criminal convictions.

Santos suggest that he, too, should first have his day in court. But again, that is not required for Congress to act.

Read more: Rep. George Santos won't seek reelection after scathing ethics report cites evidence of lawbreaking

And Santos has had due process of a sort: The House Ethics Committee, according to its recent report and 56-page investigative findings, reviewed more than 170,000 documents and interviewed dozens of witnesses, all while consulting with the Justice Department to ensure its investigation did not interfere with the feds’ prosecution. Santos, contrary to his public claims, did not cooperate with the House committee.

The Ethics members, equally split between Republicans and Democrats, unanimously concluded that Santos deceived and “blatantly stole” from campaign donors for his personal profit and enjoyment (Ferragamo! Hermes! Botox! OnlyFans! Las Vegas and the Hamptons!), created fictitious conduits to funnel cash and filed false federal fundraising reports.

The committee sent to the Justice Department evidence of possible crimes beyond those in the government’s 23-count indictment for wire and credit card fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and lying on federal disclosure forms.

Read more: Ex-treasurer for Rep. George Santos pleads guilty to conspiracy, tells of bogus loan and fake donors

“The sheer scope of the violations at issue here is highly unusual and damning,” the Ethics Committee said. Amen to that. Santos called its work “a disgusting politicized smear” and vowed to fight “for my rights and for defending my name.” (Which one?)

The committee could have held a public, trial-like hearing, but instead urged the House to act immediately. The Republican chair called for expulsion.

Twice before, the House rejected resolutions to expel Santos because members of both parties were concerned that he hadn’t yet received due process. But once the Ethics Committee’s filed its final report, the numbers began to shift.

Read more: Rep. Santos faces new charges he stole donor IDs, made unauthorized charges to their credit cards

Santos' expulsion does defy the will of the Long Island voters who elected him a year ago. But they had cast their ballots for a fictitious candidate of Santos’ creation. They only learned post-election that he’d lied about where he’d gone to college, about working on Wall Street, about his wealth, about being the “Jew-ish” grandson of Holocaust survivors and the son of a 9/11 survivor. Early this year, a poll of his New York district found that almost 80% of voters wanted Santos gone.

Nearly as many New Jersey voters want Menendez to resign, along with most Senate Democrats, New Jersey’s Democratic governor and a raft of local and state officials. But Menendez refuses. Unlike Santos, he shouldn't get kicked out — he hasn’t had anything that resembles due process; there has been no Senate Ethics Committee investigation.

Still, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and for his own gain, Menendez allegedly pressed Egypt’s interests with Congress and presidents despite widespread objections to its dismal human rights record, and gave the Egyptians sensitive government information.

The weight of the feds’ evidence against Menendez — the New York Times canvassed associates and not even an ally suggested by Menendez’s office would defend him — suggests the senator should be censured while he awaits his day in court.

That comes in the spring. And if he’s convicted, well, expulsion comes next. Right into history’s sorriest pages with Santos-Devolder.

@jackiekcalmes

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.