It is hard to read the 20-page federal indictment of New York Representative George Santos without feeling a profound sense of disappointment. The Justice Department has charged him with fraudulently soliciting campaign donations, making fraudulent bank transactions, theft of public money, wire fraud, and making false statements in House financial disclosure forms. He pleaded not guilty to the 13 charges during an initial court appearance on Wednesday.
It isn’t exactly surprising that Santos was indicted. Since his election to the House last fall, reporters have revealed that large sections of his biography were essentially fabricated. Santos admitted in December that, despite his earlier claims, he had not graduated from college or worked for major banks like Goldman Sachs or Citigroup. Neither he nor his family oversaw a significant real estate portfolio of rental properties, as he once claimed. Santos is not a descendant of Holocaust survivors and his mother did not die on 9/11. I could go on (he was also not a collegiate volleyball star), but you get the picture.
What is disappointing is that Santos did not put his wide-ranging skills at lying to use on a more legally palatable grift. His alleged crimes are petty and uninspiring in nature, such as small-time unemployment fraud and sloppy campaign finance violations. It would have been fairly straightforward for Santos to exploit his office in various ways without running afoul of federal prosecutors. By not taking advantage of those opportunities, he missed out on a much more lucrative life as a public official.
Take, for instance, the campaign finance charges. According to the indictment, Santos directed an associate to seek out campaign donations for a company known as Redstone Strategies last year. Santos’s friend told a donor that Redstone was a super PAC, which is authorized to make “independent expenditures” on behalf of candidates and causes under federal campaign finance law. But Redstone was not a super PAC. It was not registered with the Federal Election Commission and it did not report any of its finances, donations, or expenditures to the agency. It was a company owned by Santos.
After Redstone received the donations from two backers, Santos allegedly went on a spending spree. “The funds received from Contributor #1 and Contributor #2 were spent by [Santos] for his personal benefit, including to make cash withdrawals, personal purchases of luxury designer clothing, credit card payments, a car payment, payments on personal debt, and one or more bank transfers to [Santos’s] personal associates,” the Justice Department claimed. None of it was spent on television ads or other relevant means to bolster Santos’s candidacy.
Santos’s alleged scheme to defraud these donors was wholly unnecessary. If he wanted to enrich himself with campaign donors’ assistance, he could have simply taken a page from the book of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell and his wife received more than $175,000 in gifts during his term in office from a Virginia businessman who wanted state universities to research a tobacco-related compound. While McDonnell set up meetings for the businessman and his company, McDonnell’s wife went on shopping trips at the businessman’s expense and they received gifts like a Rolex watch and free rounds of golf. The McDonnells even secured tens of thousands of dollars in loans from him to pay for their daughters’ wedding.
“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “isn’t that just plain old-fashioned bribery?” Not according to the Supreme Court. In 2016, the justices unanimously overturned McDonnell’s conviction on federal bribery charges. The court ruled that all those nice little (and not-so-little) favors that McDonnell did for the businessman—setting up meetings, making introductions, and giving the implicit gubernatorial stamp of approval to his enterprise—didn’t count as “official acts” under the statute. After all, Chief Justice John Roberts reasoned, Americans expect their public officials to be responsive to the public and do things on behalf of their constituents.
“Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time,” he wrote. “The basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns—whether it is the union official worried about a plant closing or the homeowners who wonder why it took five days to restore power to their neighborhood after a storm.” (It’s unclear if Rolexes are a mandatory part of that compact or just optional.) Though Roberts conceded that the facts were “distasteful” and “may even be worse than that,” he and the rest of the court were ultimately more concerned about the Justice Department’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.
Had Santos merely befriended these donors, and had they given him what he bought on the shopping spree as gifts, he might have been on a more stable legal footing. He might be even better situated than McDonnell because the average federal lawmaker carries out far fewer “official acts” than a governor. So long as Santos did not reenact a Thomas Nast cartoon by accepting a giant bag of cash from someone that was labeled “bribe money for a vote on a specific bill,” he could accept all sorts of “gifts” from very wealthy and very generous associates without fear of prosecution.
Santos could learn a thing or two from his colleagues across the aisle and across the Capitol. In 2017, New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez went on trial for public corruption charges related to his relationship with Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist and longtime friend. It was the kind of friendship that most people can only dream about: Prosecutors claimed that Menendez helped secure visas for Melgen’s girlfriends from the State Department and lobbied foreign governments on behalf of Melgen’s business interests. At the same time, Melgen gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Menendez’s campaign and super PAC and feted Menendez over the years with luxury vacations, private flights to Paris, and free rounds of golf. (Take note, George: It’s always golf, for some reason.)
When the case went to trial, the jury failed to convict Menendez on any of the charges, and the judge was forced to declare a mistrial, in part because the McDonnell ruling had undermined the prosecution’s “stream of benefits” theory of bribery. The Justice Department eventually dropped all charges; Menendez, after some harsh but nonbinding ethics admonishments, resumed his legislative career. He currently serves as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.
Santos’s other major series of alleged offenses was tied to Covid-19 relief. As part of the Cares Act, which shoveled massive piles of cash into the collapsing economy in the spring of 2020, every state expanded its unemployment benefits program while unemployment figures skyrocketed. Santos, like millions of Americans, applied to receive some of these expanded U.I. benefits from March to April 2020. Unlike millions of Americans at the time, however, Santos was not unemployed: He worked as a regional director of an investment firm where he drew a comfortable $120,000 annual salary. Federal prosecutors claimed that Santos nonetheless received just shy of $25,000 in unemployment benefits in the early months of the pandemic.
His career in public life had not yet begun, but if it had, Santos could have availed himself of other opportunities to make a buck. Maybe he could have sold his stocks in the months before the country shut down after receiving private briefings from public health experts, reaping a relative windfall before the market cratered. Perhaps Santos could have availed himself of the Paycheck Protection Program, which sent billions in emergency loans to business applicants to keep their payrolls intact during the initial months of the crisis. A handful of lawmakers did just that in early 2020; some had even voted against the program before availing themselves of it.
I’ve previously noted that Santos’s rise to Congress is a fairly dire sign for American democracy. It should not be possible in a healthy republic with a functioning free press for a serial fabulist—and a flagrant one at that—to win a seat in the national legislature. While politicians occasionally lie about their backgrounds on the campaign trail, I know of no other instance where a lawmaker essentially fabricated their identity to win office. His indictment for these petty, sloppy offenses is a warning sign of a different kind. But for a few different choices, it would not have been that hard for George Santos to lawfully enrich himself while serving out his term in office—just as some of his colleagues do.