Fortunately for George Santos, not all lies are crimes. Unfortunately for George Santos, some are.
The federal indictment of the esteemed U.S. Representative from New York’s 3rd congressional district runs 13 counts long, essentially encompassing three separate schemes by America’s best-known serial fraudster. And, while I try to avoid outright predictions, I feel confident proclaiming here and now: Santos won’t beat this case.
The indictment alleges, first, that Santos stole tens of thousands of dollars from his own political donors by raising money for his campaign, purportedly to purchase tv ads and other standard election fare. Instead, he made off with the cash and used it to buy personal luxury goods. Prosecutors charge that Santos blew the loot on “luxury designer clothing, credit card payments, a car payment, [and] payments on personal debts.” (Sadly, we got no more specifics; at the SDNY, we’d have laid out all the juicy details, and probably appended a photo of the goods to the indictment, just for kicks.) The indictment also includes money laundering charges because Santos made a series of wire transactions, apparently to disguise the source of the stolen funds.
Second, according to the indictment, Santos committed a good old-fashioned unemployment fraud. (I say that with a sense of nostalgia because we’d often get these cases as first-year prosecutors: guy got unemployment benefits, guy wasn’t actually unemployed, done and done.) In this case, Santos claimed he was out of a job and collected over $24,000 in unemployment – while he actually was employed at an investment firm, making $120,000 per year. (Why, you might ask, would a guy making that much money commit fraud for so relatively little? Because it’s George Santos.) And, because nothing can ever be just a standard fraud with this guy – there’s always a twist that makes it extra-devious – he stole from a fund specifically created for folks who were out of work because of the Covid pandemic.
Finally, Santos faces charges that he lied to Congress during his unsuccessful campaign for the House in 2020 and then during his winning effort in 2022. In his mandatory financial disclosures to Congress, Santos didn’t just lie – he did it in confounding ways, understating or omitting his assets in some instances while inflating his wealth in others. While it’s not a crime to lie to the general public about your educational background, your family, your race, your prior employment, or your volleyball prowess, as Santos did – it certainly is against the law to lie about important matters in formal submissions to Congress.
The fact that this indictment covers three separate schemes poses a basic, quasi-mathematical problem for Santos. If he expects to wriggle out of this, he’s essentially got to beat all three cases; conviction on any one of them will end his political career and likely send him to prison (more on this in a moment). The odds are stacked against any defendant in any federal case. Well over 95% of all federal charges result in guilty pleas, and DOJ wins the healthy majority of those cases that do go to trial. (Numbers vary by year and district but, conservatively, more than 80% of federal trials result in conviction.) Long odds for Santos, on any one fraud scheme. Now multiply that by three.
This case will be tried in the Eastern District of New York, out in Central Islip. (A little behind-the-scenes for you: as the indictment dropped, I got a call from a CNN producer based in DC, asking if it would be accurate to say Central Islip is “in New York City.” I responded – and I quote myself here – “Hellllllllllllll no.” I added that the anchor needed to say the courthouse was on Long Island, not in it. This was what we call a highly-localized grammatical fact-check.) Watch for Santos to seek a change in venue. His trial jury likely will include at least some members from his congressional district, and those folks, it seems fair to assume, are pissed.
It’s still early, of course, but the case looks strong and straightforward. The charges appear to rest mostly on financial documents, and on Santos’s own statements in emails and other electronic communications. The indictment mentions no traditional cooperating witness who committed crimes with Santos and now has flipped. Take away the old “This case rests on the word of a criminal with an incentive to lie,” and defense lawyers will be left with little to grasp at. And there could be more trouble ahead for Santos. Notably, the charges filed thus far do not touch on some of the splashier frauds around Santos, including his reported scheme to steal thousands of dollars from a disabled veteran who was trying to raise money for surgery for his dying dog. (Really: it’s more than any fiction writer could ever devise.)
Santos has no obligation to defend himself from the courthouse steps, of course, but he tried to do just that after his arraignment. He offered up the nuanced theory that he doesn’t “understand where the government’s getting their information” and it’s all a “witch hunt” anyway. Well, then.
If Santos goes to trial and is convicted, he almost certainly will spend time behind bars. The charges carry maximum sentences of twenty years, but those numbers don’t mean much here; no first-time, non-violent offender will get anything remotely close to the statutory max. But if we hash out the likely sentence, using the advisory federal guidelines, Santos likely will fall in the three-to-four year range, at least. A judge might depart downwards a bit, but it’s hard to see a non-incarceratory sentence given the facts. And federal sentences are real; at most, an inmate can get a 15% reduction for good behavior in prison.
In the meantime, Santos can go right ahead serving the good people of New York’s 3rd congressional district, and all of us, really. The man has stepped aside from his committee assignments, but he remains in Congress, able to vote on the budget and war and abortion and voting rights. Confoundingly, he can continue to serve even if he is convicted, and sentenced, and even locked up. The only way to toss him out is by expulsion, which requires a two-thirds vote of the House. If you run the numbers, that would require all 213 Democrats plus 77 Republicans. That simply isn’t happening as a political matter – not without the support of Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who courageously has declared that he will not support Santos for re-election, but also isn’t willing to throw the guy out.
The most likely scenario is that Santos exits Congress only after being forced out by the voters, either in a Republican primary or in the 2024 general election. But he might well finish out his current term in office. While a conviction of Santos likely will finally tip the political balance to the point where even McCarthy has to take action, it’s not clear that prosecutors can get through discovery, motions, and trial (and perhaps sentencing and appeal) before Santos’s term expires in January 2025.
As outrageous as it might seem for a person holding high federal office to remain in place while under indictment, there’s recent precedent here. When Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Menendez got hit with federal corruption charges in 2015, he stayed put, beat the case, and continues to this day to represent the Garden State (and yours truly) on Capitol Hill. That makes it tricky for Democrats to clamor for Santos’s expulsion during the pendency of his case. And, keep in mind: this might be a brisk warmup for the very real possibility that our next president could be elected while under indictment, or perhaps even after a conviction.
I usually feel a slight twinge of sympathy for any person who gets charged with a crime and faces the likelihood of imprisonment. Maybe I’m a softy, or maybe I’ve spent enough time inside prison as a prosecutor to have a sense for just how miserable it is. But, I must confess, I feel little sorrow for Santos. Maybe it’s because he’s such an aggressive, creative liar. Maybe it rankles that his arrogance remains utterly unabated. And maybe it’s that he’s been ripping off the good people of NY-3, who deserve a representative who didn’t steal their votes and lie his way into office.
Up until recently, Santos had gained much from his lies: money, fame, political power. But now the house of cards is wobbling and, when it falls, it’ll cost him all of that (save the fame, which will permanently turn to infamy) – plus his freedom.