This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Disgraced New York congressman George Santos (R) has lied about nearly every aspect of his life — from his education to his heritage to his mother’s cause of death. It’s no surprise that Santos also faces credible accusations that he falsified campaign finance filings.
Legal watchdog organizations have pointed to a laundry list of irregularities, including improbable campaign expenditures each totaling $199.99, just under the Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) threshold to require receipts; donors whose names and addresses cannot be verified; and an amended disclosure showing that a six-figure loan Santos made to his campaign wasn’t actually made from his personal funds, raising the possibility that he positioned himself as a “straw donor” to his own campaign.
Of Santos’ known lies and misdeeds, his contempt for campaign finance laws poses the greatest, although perhaps not the most obvious, threat to his constituents and our democracy. The U.S.’s campaign finance laws are in place to prevent and punish corruption, ensure fair policy outcomes, and ensure voters know who is financially supporting candidates so that they can make informed decisions at the polls. Our laws and regulations are far from perfect, but they are intended to limit campaign contributions, restrict personal spending, and ensure some transparency. When candidates violate these laws, they undermine our democratic process and further erode public trust in elected officials.
It’s not unheard of for candidates to accidentally run afoul of federal campaign finance laws, but a pattern of filing discrepancies should raise alarm bells, and suggests that a candidate may have something to hide. Candidates hoping to evade contribution limits or illegally accept contributions from foreign sources may falsify donor names and addresses. Likewise, candidates who don’t wish to be associated with a particular special interest group or corporation may try to conceal that it contributed to their campaign. On the campaign spending side, false receipts may be used to hide the misuse of campaign funds for personal expenses.
Santos appears to have engaged in all of these deceptive practices. And it’s probable that these are just the tip of the iceberg. At an absolute minimum, his inaccurate campaign filings kept crucial information from voters, and like his more blatant lies, contributed to an inability to make an informed decision at the ballot box.
Santos’ constituents are rightfully outraged – nearly eight in ten of his constituents now believe he should resign from Congress. As a NY-3 voter recently told the Washington Post, Santos left his constituents in the “vulnerable position of being represented by a fraud and a con man, and that really means we’re not represented at all.” As Congress takes up important debates on the debt ceiling, our federal budget, and national security, these citizens can’t know where Santos’ loyalties lie. Beyond himself, what does George Santos care about? Who funds his campaigns? Who does he answer to? Who does he really represent?
Santos should resign. The House should investigate and expel him. But because Santos stubbornly refuses to step down and House Republican leaders continue to protect him as a member of their slim majority, federal, state, and local authorities are even more critical to ensure justice and accountability for New York’s 3rd congressional district. Multiple investigations are underway by the Nassau County district attorney, the New York attorney general, federal prosecutors for the Eastern District of New York, the House Ethics Committee and the FEC. The FEC asked Santos to clarify the identity of his campaign treasurer and plans to run in 2024, warning him against “knowingly and willfully making any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation.”
Government authorities should enforce our laws to the fullest extent, including by pursuing civil fines and criminal penalties up to and including imprisonment. In addition, the House Ethics Committee, which is investigating at least two complaints against Santos, should recommend expulsion.
George Santos won’t be the last candidate accused of sweeping campaign finance violations, and the FEC must be better prepared to prevent unscrupulous people from misleading voters. In 2021, the FEC Office of the Inspector General identified skyrocketing campaign spending, particularly after the Citizens United decision, as one of the greatest challenges facing the agency. While the rise in campaign spending has strained the FEC’s oversight abilities, its budget has not kept pace. Congress should provide sufficient funding for the FEC to adequately review transactions, identify irregularities, and enforce the law. Congress should also strengthen the FEC by restoring its ability to conduct regular audits of campaigns, and should consider reforming its structure to end the deadlock that stymies its ability to move forward on both enforcement and rulemaking.
By holding candidates and elected officials accountable for their actions, we can ensure that every citizen has a voice and our democracy remains strong and healthy, and those that lie to the American people and break our laws must be held responsible.