The Indicted Congressman’s Club

Photograph Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection – Public Domain

Well-deserved indictments keep hitting Congress. The latest indicted legislator is Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, the politician backed by former House speaker Nancy Pelosi in his last election, against a more progressive opponent, of course. On May 3, the justice department charged Cuellar with accepting roughly $600,000 from Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil company and a Mexican bank. These payoffs were for “official acts as a member of Congress.” Sound familiar? It should, because it resembles the case against New Jersey Democratic senator Bob “Gold Bar” Menendez, charged some months back with selling his office for gold ingots, a fancy car and other gifts. And then, back on October 10, New York GOP congressman George Santos was charged with conspiracy for, among other things, stealing people’s identities and making charges on his own donors’ credit cards without their authorization. What a buncha guys!

Since the indictment, Menendez has taken to the airwaves to insist he’ll fight to the finish. How is he even still in Congress, you ask? A massive case of narcissistic entitlement, that’s how; Cuellar – same problem. Instead of doing the correct and decorous thing, namely resigning, they cling to their congressional seats. The GOP-controlled House had the decency to expel Santos, but don’t expect such propriety from the Dems. They reserve their threats of expulsion for great senators, like Al Franken, guilty of making an off-color joke that riled the Me-Too fanatics. But when it comes to two congressional bigwigs like Menendez and Cuellar? The Dems may squabble about one or both resigning, but they put no muscle into it. Not like they did for the incorruptible Franken, on whom they ganged up and swarmed like a mess of angry hornets, and with about that much, insect-level, brain-power. Looking at you, Kirsten Gillibrand.

So what’s the latest corruption bombshell to hit the presses? Well, Cuellar and his wife Imelda are charged with “participating in two schemes involving bribery, unlawful foreign influence and money laundering,” according to the DOJ press release on May 3. This chicanery allegedly began in December 2014 and lasted through November 2021, giving the Cuellars plenty of time to clean up financially. So in light of these egregious bribes, payoffs and corruption that stinks to high heaven, you’d think any self-respecting Dem would call for Cuellar to resign from Congress. You’d think it, but you’d be wrong. Pelosi’s darling colleague has received not one demand from the Texas delegation to resign. And the rest of the Dems had an attack of muteness too, except for one House member, Democrat Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who urged Cuellar to leave office. Nice to know that there’s one Dem lawmaker who can tell right from wrong.

Things got thornier for Menendez. As far back as September 26, a slew of Dem senators called for his head, among them Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, Vermont’s Peter Welch, Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, Montana’s Jon Tester, Nevada’s Jacky Rosen, Colorado’s Michael Bennett…and many more. It’s hard to say why Senate Dems went bananas over Menendez stepping down and not Cuellar, though the most likely hypothesis is some combo of Pelosi’s embrace of the Texas crook and all those gold bars in the Menendez New Jersey manse. These are the kinds of details that make or break senatorial careers, that mark the difference between pretending nothing has happened and climbing self-righteously (but correctly) up on a high horse. If investigators find hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of emeralds sewn into Cuellar’s winter coat, it’s safe to say that will send the Democrats up a tree. But barring that, he remains in the safe shadow of a Pelosi favorite.

Apparently, Republicans take corruption much more seriously than Dems. They EXPELLED George Santos from the House (with a lot of help from hypocritical Democrats). True, Santos was accused of stealing money from donors, but among the many charges against him were quite a number that did not warrant expulsion. So what if he falsely boasted he was worth $11 million? Who cares that he fibbed he had been a volleyball star at Baruch College, was Jewish (he isn’t), lied about attending Horace Mann for high school, or that he had worked for Goldman Sachs? Or that his animal rescue group, Friends of Pets United, was not the tax-exempt organization he claimed? Far more disturbing was that he swindled a disabled veteran and his sick service dog and may have ripped off an Amish dog breeder. What does Santos have against canines – well might you ask. It’s one of those weird little details that begs for the opinion of a psychotherapist.

But really, should we care that Santos suggested Chinese communists kidnapped his niece, or that he landed on the moon? Clearly these are matters for his psychiatrist, not the U.S. congress. If he hallucinated that some of his family died in the Holocaust while others were killed in the 9/11 attacks, there are medications to deal with that. And you can bet dollars to donuts Santos ain’t the first congressman to spend campaign money on Botox.

That Santos defrauded the government of $24,000 in unemployment benefits is more concerning than whether or not he really performed in drag in Brazil, was on Hannah Montana, was ever a journalist or a Broadway producer or that he was supposedly the target of an assassination attempt, for which clearly, the only likely culprits would be fellow GOPers desperate to dump this egregious embarrassment. So they did the next best thing. They expelled him.

Did Santos learn his lesson and come away chastened? No worries because no, he did not. He’s running for the House again, as he announced March 7. I, for one, look forward to his campaign trail fabrications, since we’re liable to find out that no, he’s not Jewish, he’s a Scientologist, or that he plagiarized college term papers from Readers’ Digest or that he has journeyed to the center of the earth.

What these three crooks share is that they are all colorful and do things in a big way. The liveliest is Santos, but Cuellar and Menendez are tied for big-time larceny, and arguably they believe the only thing they did wrong, unlike lots of their colleagues, was get caught. But given the choice, I hope voters reelect Santos, by far the most entertaining, though don’t be surprised to see Menendez or Cuellar running for re-election from their prison cells.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.