Central Islip, New York—The long trail of lies has finally caught up with Rep. George Santos, who was indicted on Wednesday for enriching himself by defrauding political donors, cheating the federal government to get COVID relief funds, and faking House disclosure forms.
The Justice Department unsealed a 13-count indictment Wednesday morning that detailed the variety of ways Santos used his brief political rise to dupe taxpayers and donors—an eagerly awaited law enforcement action that followed months of investigative news reports about his wide-ranging fraudster lifestyle.
Santos was taken into custody Wednesday morning and arraigned in federal court in New York that afternoon. Wearing his usual uniform of a blazer, sweater and khakis, he was brought into the eighth-floor courtroom in Central Islip by U.S. Marshals. He answered all the judge’s questions with “yes, ma’am” during the 15-minute hearing, and stared ahead without showing any emotion.
He entered a not guilty plea and was released on a $500,000 bond. One of the guarantors is Santos’ father, a court spokesperson said.
Santos’ defense counsel, one-time Queens District Attorney candidate Joe Murray, told the judge that Santos would have to travel because he’s running for re-election. However, the judge restricted his movements to New York City, Long Island, and Washington, D.C. unless he gets permission from pretrial services. He was also ordered to surrender his passport, and agree to random home visits from pretrial services. He will return to court on June 30.
Outside the courthouse, Santos called the case a “witch hunt” but said he had “no desire not to comply” with the legal process. He then ranted about President Joe Biden, saying it made “no sense” that he could be indicted just a few months into his tenure in Congress when Biden’s relatives had been receiving money from foreign entities for “years.”
“I’m going to fight my battle, I’m going to deliver, I’m going to fight the witch hunt, I’m going to take care of clearing my name and I look forward to doing that,” he said.
Investigators have been probing Santos’ campaign and financial affairs for months. Since being elected last year, he has been accused of lying about his life story, work history, and education, and questions have been raised surrounding unusual payments and loans surrounding his campaign.
Despite the mounting scrutiny, Santos was apparently surprised when federal prosecutors filed sealed charges in the Eastern District of New York on Tuesday. “This is news to me,” he told the Associated Press when approached for comment. “You’re the first to call me about this.”
Prosecutors allege that starting in Sept. 2022, when Santos began his congressional campaign, he operated a limited liability company that he used to defraud political supporters. He also allegedly enlisted the help of a political consultant, identified as “Person 1” in the indictment, to tell donors that that money would be used to help his campaign, including TV ads.
The indictment details steps Santos and “Person 1” took to enlist potential donors, including sending multiple emails and texts to entice them to help the campaign. In one Oct. 4, 2022 email, “Person 1” insisted to a donor that they were trying to “raise another $700,000 dollars to reach our goal of $1.5 million to invest in [Santos’] race.”
It ultimately led at least two unnamed donors to each transfer $25,000 to a bank account that Santos allegedly controlled. Shortly after the funds were transferred into the company bank account, the indictment states, the money was moved into Santos’ personal account.
Thousands of dollars meant for the campaign were used on personal experiences, like “luxury designer clothing and credit card payments,” the indictment says. Santos also allegedly used the money to make cash withdrawals, payments on personal debts, and send at least one bank transfer to a personal associate.
But prosecutors say Santos compounded that lie by claiming that the LLC was a 501(c)(4) nonprofit when it wasn’t—something investigators say they backed up with a text message Santos sent to his associate that assured the person that the firm was just “a small C4” with “no limits” on contributions that served “just to help this race.”
What’s worse, Santos’ team apparently put it all in writing to donors, with the feds citing multiple emails that detailed how the company was trying to “raise another $700,000 dollars” with a group that was formed “exclusively” to help Santos and would be spent “directly on supporting George and his election.”
Prosecutors also accused Santos of illegally tapping taxpayer money meant to help Americans who suddenly became jobless due to the sharp economic downturn during the COVID pandemic’s nationwide business closures. The indictment states Santos applied to receive unemployment insurance benefits from New York State and federal funds that came from the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act. It accuses him of lying about being unemployed for more than a year, from March 2020 until April 2021, noting how he certified to the government every week that he was still without a job—even though he was actively making $120,000 a year as a regional director at an investment firm headquartered in Melbourne, Florida.
He allegedly ended up earning a double salary, with an extra $24,744 in federal taxpayer funds and another $20,304 from New York.
Ironically, Santos has recently supported congressional bills that would make it easier for the feds to clamp down on these alleged crimes. In March, he co-sponsored a Republican bill that would incentivize states to more aggressively investigate COVID unemployment insurance fraud and double the statute of limitations for that crime, essentially doubling the time federal prosecutors have to charge people with the very thing for which Santos is accused.
Then in April, he voted to pass another Republican bill that would require able-bodied adults to work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week to remain eligible for Medicaid benefits. Santos actually initially withheld his vote on that legislation because he didn’t think the work requirements were tough enough; he wanted 30 hours a week, not just 20.
But according to investigators, Santos went even further when he carried these lies over to mandated federal disclosure forms required of every member of Congress. The indictment alleges that Santos hid how much money he was actually making on his House of Representatives financial disclosure paperwork, claiming that he made $55,000 from a second company—a higher number that disguised how he was actually getting paid by the Florida investment firm.
Santos only made it worse for himself last year, when he turned in House disclosure forms that made it seem like he had earned a $750,000 salary from his mysterious “Devolder Organization,” got anywhere between $1 million and $5 million in company dividends, owned a checking account with $100,001 to $250,000, and had anywhere from $1 million to $5 million sitting in his savings account. In reality, investigators charged, all of those numbers were simply made up.
Given that Santos is a congressman, the Justice Department’s public integrity unit in Washington, D.C., is involved in the investigation. According to court records, the federal prosecution team includes two members of that unit: Jacob Steiner, who recently took down a former Arkansas state senator and two health care executives over a multimillion dollar bribery scheme, and Jolee Porter, who nailed an Atlanta city official for steering city contracts in exchange for bribes.
Aside from the allegations that led to his criminal charges, Santos has previously been accused of fabricating large swathes of his biography— including not disclosing a marriage and lying that his mother was killed on 9/11—as well as stealing money intended to pay for a veteran’s dog’s surgery, using a stolen checkbook to buy clothes in Brazil, running a credit card fraud scheme, and possibly making up an “assassination attempt.”