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Investigators Will Likely Want to Talk to House Republicans Who Might Have Known About George Santos
Expert on congressional ethics: “I suspect they would definitely be talking to them.”
Good afternoon and welcome to Press Pass, our twice-weekly newsletter on Congress, campaigns, and the way Washington works. I wanted to share with you today a fascinating conversation I had recently. But first, I just wanted to say thanks to everybody who has been reading, emailing, and leaving comments on the first few editions of Press Pass so far. And I wanted to ask: Would you please share this newsletter with anybody you think might be interested?
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On to today’s edition. I spoke this week with Tim Stretton, director of the Congressional Oversight Initiative at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a centrist nonprofit group.
Drawing on his experience as an alumnus of the Senate—he worked for Maine Republican Susan Collins—Tim now trains congressional staff on how to conduct investigations and oversight, making him the perfect person to ask about the famous (infamous, even) new congressman from the Empire State, George Santos.
Amid so many revelations about Santos’s past, what is the Ethics Committee poised to focus on?
They have a pretty broad jurisdiction. I do think what they would ultimately look into is the issues around campaign financing and I think it’s pretty telling that the complaints to the Ethics Committee regarding the congressman have very much been tailored around those particular issues. And that’s most likely what they would be looking at.
What kind of punishments are on the table in an investigation like this?
A lot of times the punishment—I don’t even like to use that word—it can range from just like a slap on the wrist, but in more severe instances, it could include various sanctions, censure, reprimand.
An extreme case, it could include [a recommendation of] expulsion. But unfortunately that’s one of the problems we see sometimes with ethics committees—a lot of times they are really just a slap on the face. There’s really not a lot of consequences that really come from them.
How do crimes committed abroad factor in, such as allegations of check fraud in Brazil?
I don’t want to say what the Ethics Committee is or is not going to look at. That’s ultimately theirs. But I would suspect that they would probably let the Brazilian authorities handle that particular case, given it’s in their jurisdiction.
If there is some kind of nexus that some of the activities were done domestically, they could [address them]. But I suspect they would let that investigation play out, ultimately see what comes from it, and then they could possibly look into it. But I would be surprised if they proactively look into the Brazilian allegations.
One of the things we’ve always advocated when training congressional staff on how to do oversight and investigations is you really do want to talk to anyone and everyone who was tangentially involved. So they might—I would suspect that they would reach out. If there’s reporting that people were aware of certain issues, I suspect they would definitely be talking to them.
I don't necessarily think it matters if it's a majority or minority party. Generally, ethics investigations are pretty bipartisan. So I don’t think that would preclude them from reaching out and I would be shocked if they didn’t.
One thing I’ll say about Ethics Committee investigations is that it’s the one time I’m generally okay with a lack of transparency. We always like to see transparency. But I think sometimes when you’re getting leaks or the public is being made aware of every step of the investigation, every time someone’s being talked to by a committee, generally you don’t like to see that. You certainly want to see the end results and the findings. But the ethics committees especially are pretty good at keeping these behind closed doors, as I think most investigations should be during the investigatory stage.
Have you ever seen a member enter Congress with this much baggage?
Not that I can think of. Certainly there are candidates that come to mind ultimately who were never elected who would have had a lot of baggage. But none that come to mind who were actually elected, especially those who have so many troubling details about them.
How do the recent changes made in the Republican rules package affect this process?
The Ethics Committee itself I don’t think actually changes… I think the biggest changes with the rules package regarding ethics investigations, I think, is mostly around the Office of Congressional Ethics, not so much around the Ethics Committee itself.
And while I think some of the changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics are unfortunate, not all Ethics Committee investigations have to come from OCE. The House Ethics Committee can initiate investigations on their own and that does happen. I think sometimes there’s a misconception that all Ethics Committee investigations come from the Office of Congressional Ethics and that’s not the case. So the Ethics Committee can do this on their own and I suspect they will given that it is a member of Congress. And some of those complaints that we’ve seen in the last week or two, those were directly addressed to the committee and not OCE.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
One more thing: a podcast for getting smarter about Congress
The House and Senate are back in session next week, so I want to recommend a podcast that’s incredibly informative about how the legislative branch functions. I’ve found it to be essential listening as we navigate this era of divided government.
CONTROL by Seven Letter, hosted by seasoned Capitol Hill staffers Brendan Buck and Annalyse Keller. Their latest episode is about the trickiness of discharge petitions and why you shouldn’t put all your eggs in that basket when it comes to the debt limit. When the fight over the debt ceiling (and it will be a HUGE fight) happens later this year, you’ll be a step ahead if you listened to this podcast. Check them out on Spotify.