Congressman George Santos charged with embezzling donations to buy luxury goods

Mired in web of lies over his background, NY Republican also faces federal criminal indictment for falsifying official disclosure, taking unemployment benefits while having job

US Rep. George Santos, a New York Republican, leaves a House GOP conference meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 25, 2023. (AP Photo/ Andrew Harnik)
US Rep. George Santos, a New York Republican, leaves a House GOP conference meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 25, 2023. (AP Photo/ Andrew Harnik)

CENTRAL ISLIP, New York (AP) — US Rep. George Santos, the New York Republican infamous for fabricating key parts of his life story, has been indicted on charges that he embezzled money from his campaign, lied to Congress about his income, and cheated his way into undeserved unemployment benefits, prosecutors said Wednesday.

The indictment says Santos induced supporters to donate to a company under the false pretense that the money would be used to support his campaign. Instead, it says, he used it for personal expenses, including designer clothes and paying his credit cards and car payments.

Santos also is accused of lying about his finances on congressional disclosure forms and applying for and receiving unemployment benefits while he was employed as regional director of an investment firm that the government shut down in 2021 over allegations that it was a Ponzi scheme.

US Attorney Breon Peace said the indictment “seeks to hold Santos accountable for various alleged fraudulent schemes and brazen misrepresentations.”

“Taken together, the allegations in the indictment charge Santos with relying on repeated dishonesty and deception to ascend to the halls of Congress and enrich himself,” Peace said.

Santos surrendered Wednesday and was taken to a federal courthouse on Long Island, where he was expected to make an initial court appearance later in the day on charges of wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds, and making false statements to Congress.

Rep. George Santos waits for the start of a session in the House chamber as the House meets for the fourth day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, January 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Reached by The Associated Press on Tuesday, Santos said he was unaware of the charges.

Santos, 34, was elected to Congress last fall after a campaign built partly on falsehoods. He told people he was a wealthy Wall Street dealmaker with a substantial real estate portfolio who had been a star volleyball player in college, among other things. He also lied about being Jewish and claimed a fluctuating spectrum of identities in interviews and campaign materials.

In reality, Santos did not work at the big financial firms he claimed had employed him, did not go to college, and struggled financially before his run for public office. He claimed he fueled his run largely with self-made riches, earned from brokering deals on expensive toys for wealthy clients, but the indictment alleges that those boasts were also exaggerated.

In regulatory filings, Santos claimed he loaned his campaign and related political action committees more than $750,000, but it was unclear how he would have come into that kind of wealth so quickly after years in which he struggled to pay his rent and faced multiple eviction proceedings.

In a financial disclosure form, Santos reported making $750,000 a year from a family company, the Devolder Organization, but the charges unsealed Wednesday allege that Santos never received that sum, nor the $1 million and $5 million in dividends he listed as coming from the firm.

Santos has described the Devolder Organization as a broker for sales of luxury items like yachts and aircraft. The business was incorporated in Florida shortly after Santos stopped working as a salesman for Harbor City Capital, the company accused by federal authorities of operating an illegal Ponzi scheme.

US Representative-elect George Santos, a New York Republican, speaks at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, November 19, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

In November 2021, Santos formed Redstone Strategies, a Florida company that federal prosecutors say he used to dupe donors into financing his lifestyle. According to the indictment, Santos told an associate to solicit contributions for the company via emails, text message and phone calls, and provided the person with contact information for potential contributors.

Emails to prospective donors falsely claimed that the company was formed “exclusively” to aid Santos’s election bid, and that there would be no limits on how much they could contribute, the indictment said. Santos had claimed falsely that the money would be spent on television ads and other campaign expenses, it said.

Last October, a month before his election, Santos transferred about $74,000 from company coffers to bank accounts he maintained, the indictment said. He also transferred money to some of his associates, it said.

Many of Santos’s fellow New York Republicans called on him to resign after his history of fabrications was revealed. Some renewed their criticism of him as news of the criminal case spread.

“Listen, George Santos should have resigned in December. George Santos should have resigned in January. George Santos should have resigned yesterday. And perhaps he’ll resign today. But sooner or later, whether he chooses to or not, both the truth and justice will be delivered to him,” said US Rep. Marc Molinaro, a Republican representing parts of upstate New York.

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was more circumspect, saying, “I think in America, you’re innocent till proven guilty.”

Santos has faced criminal investigations before.

When he was 19, he was the subject of a criminal investigation in Brazil over allegations he had used stolen checks to buy items at a clothing shop. Brazilian authorities said they have reopened the case.

In 2017, Santos was charged with theft in Pennsylvania after authorities said he used thousands of dollars in fraudulent checks to buy puppies from dog breeders. That case was dismissed after Santos claimed his checkbook had been stolen, and that someone else had taken the dogs.

Federal authorities have separately been looking into complaints about Santos’s work raising money for a group that purported to help neglected and abused pets. One New Jersey veteran accused Santos of failing to deliver $3,000 he had raised to help his pet dog get a needed surgery.

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