The biography of Congress member George Santos seemed quite impressive. The 34-year-old son of immigrants had graduated from Baruch College, a public college in New York, before going on to work at firms like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. Santos eventually became a successful financier who started an animal rescue charity. The problem is that biography was apparently a lie, and now he is facing both political consequences and legal consequences for his wholesale inventions.
As revealed in the New York Times on December 19, it wasn’t just that Santos exaggerated his résumé — he allegedly invented it out of whole cloth. It set in motion a chain of events that culminated on Wednesday with Santos being indicted for wire fraud and money laundering in federal court on Long Island. Santos was accused of soliciting funds from donors to support his campaign and then converting them for his own personal use as well as claiming Covid-19 unemployment benefits while he had a full-time job making a six-figure salary. He pleaded not guilty to all 13 charges and was released on a $500,000 bond.
The sordid saga of Santos started when the Times found that he apparently did not graduate from Baruch College, he did not work for Goldman Sachs or Citigroup, there were no records of him being a successful financier, nor were there of him registering his animal rescue charity. The Times also found that he had been charged with check fraud in Brazil.
Further, a number of outlets have found no evidence of Santos’s repeated claims to be Jewish, to have Jewish heritage, or to be descended from refugees fleeing the Holocaust. Santos even described himself at one point as a “proud American Jew” in a campaign position paper.
In a media tour with friendly outlets on December 26, Santos admitted to putting “a little bit of fluff” on his résumé. In other words, he conceded that he never graduated from college, never worked for Goldman Sachs or Citigroup, and wasn’t Jewish (though he claimed to be “Jew-ish”). Santos brushed off lying about basic biographical information as embellishment, and he pushed back on the Times’s reporting about his criminal charge in Brazil. “I am not a criminal,” he told the New York Post. In May, however, he accepted a plea deal in a remote court hearing in Rio de Janeiro, where he admitted his guilt and agreed to pay roughly $2,000 in fines and $2,800 in restitution in exchange for having the charges dropped.
The whole Santos story has sparked one of the more bizarre political scandals in American history. Members of Congress have committed murder in office. In fact, a member of Congress has even killed another member of Congress. Even in the present day, we’ve seen every scandal under the sun, from Anthony Weiner tweeting a lewd picture of himself, to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s infamous Facebook post about Jewish space lasers. But it’s hard to think of a precedent for a scandal like this as Santos faces calls for his resignation from fellow Republicans and investigations into potential criminal misconduct.
Who is George Santos?
There are some things we know about Santos. The openly gay son of Brazilian immigrants, he was elected in November to an open congressional seat that includes a thin slice of Queens and much of the North Shore of Long Island in Nassau County. Santos defeated Democrat Robert Zimmerman by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. This represented a major swing from 2020 when Biden had won the district by the same margin. That year, Santos ran against incumbent Tom Suozzi in a similar district and lost handily by a margin of 56 percent to 43.5 percent.
Santos is also an ardent Trump supporter — so much so that he was at Trump’s Ellipse rally on January 6, 2021, and has repeatedly falsely claimed that the former president won the 2020 election.
Also, for all his alleged lying about his résumé, it is clear that one company Santos worked at, Harbor City Capital, has been accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of being a Ponzi scheme. As for Santos’s other employment, he did spend a stint as a Portuguese language customer service agent for DISH Network a decade ago.
Santos has also been accused of setting up a GoFundMe that raised $3,000 to pay for lifesaving surgery for the dying service dog of a disabled homeless veteran and then pocketing the money. He responded on Twitter by claiming “the reports that I would let a dog die is shocking & insane.” Santos added, “Over the past 24hr I have received pictures of dogs I helped rescue throughout the years along with supportive messages.” Politico has reported that this alleged scam is being investigated by federal law enforcement. Questions have been raised about whether he had misappropriated other funds that he had raised on behalf of animal welfare.
He was charged with theft in Pennsylvania in 2017 in connection to writing bad checks to Amish dog breeders. The charges were eventually dismissed after Santos convinced law enforcement in the state that his checkbook was stolen.
The New York congressman also falsely claimed in a 2017 Seattle court hearing for a convicted fraudster that he worked for Goldman Sachs. Santos made that statement, according to Politico, at a bail hearing for Gustavo Ribeiro Trelha, who was eventually convicted of fraud for skimming card information from ATMs. The two men had previously shared an apartment in Florida. Trelha has since implicated Santos as being the mastermind behind the scheme in a sworn statement sent to federal law enforcement.
Santos has also pushed back against the claim that he dressed in drag while living in Brazil. A drag performer who goes by the name Eula Rochard told multiple outlets that Santos used to perform in drag under the name “Kitara Ravache.”
Santos initially mounted an aggressive denial on Twitter. “The most recent obsession from the media claiming that I am a drag Queen or ‘performed’ as a drag Queen is categorically false,” said the embattled New York Republican. “The media continues to make outrageous claims about my life while I am working to deliver results.”
Eventually, he conceded to reporters at LaGuardia Airport that he did dress in drag but that he was simply having “fun at a festival.”
What don’t we know?
We don’t know a lot. This ranges from basic facts about Santos’s biography to details about his dealings with the Brazilian criminal justice system, and everything in between, including where he actually lives.
But most importantly, we don’t know where Santos’s money comes from. The representative loaned his own campaign $700,000 during the 2022 cycle and claimed an income of $750,000. He also listed millions of dollars in assets including an apartment in Rio De Janeiro worth up to $1 million and a seven-figure savings account. It’s a major shift in fortune for someone who was evicted twice, in 2015 and 2017, for failing to pay rent and had been taken to court for not paying debts. Even in 2020, he reported income in only one category — compensation in excess of $5,000 paid by one source — with no other assets.
Santos initially provided no information on his finances on his media tour, except to concede that he owned no property. He had previously claimed on Twitter to be a landlord who owned 13 properties. The representative eventually claimed in an interview with Semafor that his newfound wealth came from “capital introduction” where he helped broker deals for the wealthy. Santos used a yacht sale as an example of how he earned a living: “If you’re looking at a $20 million yacht, my referral fee there can be anywhere between $200,000 and $400,000.”
What happens now?
In addition to the charges announced Wednesday, Santos is also being investigated by local prosecutors, while the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James has been “looking into some of the issues that have come out.” Further, a complaint has been filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center alleging Santos illegally hid the source of the money he loaned his campaign through a straw donor scheme and other alleged violations, including whether he used campaign funds to pay for personal expenses. The Washington Post reported in late January that the Justice Department has asked the FEC to hold off any enforcement actions so that it can pursue a criminal investigation.
Although Santos had originally accepted an assignment from House GOP leadership to sit on the science and small business committees, he announced on January 31 in a meeting of Republican lawmakers that he would step aside from those positions. The announcement came only a day after a closed-door meeting with McCarthy.
Dan Goldman, a fellow representative from New York and a former prosecutor, has suggested that Santos face criminal investigation for conspiracy to defraud the United States as well as filing false statements to the FEC.
In a December interview with Vox, Goldman shied away from weighing in on whether Santos should be denied his seat in Congress. “I think the bigger question is not whether I think George Santos should be a member of Congress. The bigger question is whether Kevin McCarthy and the Republican leadership think that George Santos should be a member of Congress.”
A number of Santos’s fellow Republicans have called on him to resign as well. The Nassau County Republican Party, long considered the most powerful county party in New York, called on Santos to step down as have other New York Republicans, including Reps. Anthony D’Esposito, Mike Lawler, Nick Langworthy, and Brandon Williams. Joe Cairo, the chair of the Nassau County GOP, told reporters, “George Santos’ campaign last year was a campaign of deceit, lies and fabrication” while demanding his resignation.
Rep. Max Miller (R-OH), one of only two Jewish Republicans in the House and a longtime Trump White House aide, called on Santos to resign in mid-January, and cited the New York Republican’s lies about his family ties to the Holocaust in doing so.
The result has left Santos in a state of limbo with no committee assignments and a constant pack of reporters following him around the Capitol. But, as McCarthy acknowledged to reporters, if the Ethics Committee finds that Santos broke the law, the New York Republican should be ousted from Congress. Further, there is new grist for the Ethics Committee with a prospective staffer accusing the New York Congress member in early February of sexual harassment.
However, as of now, McCarthy needs Santos almost as much as Santos needs McCarthy. McCarthy only became speaker by the skin of his teeth on the 15th ballot. With a narrow majority — and the likelihood of frequent member absences now that the House has gotten rid of proxy voting — McCarthy needs every vote he can get and Santos was the deciding vote on the Republican debt limit legislation in late April. He has so far demurred from calling on Santos to resign, but made clear that the New York Republican would have to step down if he is convicted.
Further, because Santos represents one of the most Democratic seats in Congress held by a Republican, forcing him to resign under any circumstance is risky. It would be a difficult seat for a Republican to hold in a special election and a loss would further imperil an already slim GOP majority.
In the meantime, it’s a matter of waiting for the next shoe to drop. As unsustainable as the current status quo might seem, the only impetus right now for Santos to resign would be a sense of shame, and it seems unlikely that he carries that burden.
Update, May 12, 12:05 pm: This story was originally published on December 21, 2022, and has been updated multiple times, most recently to include Santos’s confession to theft in Brazil.