With campaign lies exposed, Santos could face legal consequences

George Santos
New York Rep.-elect George Santos speaking at a GOP event in November. (David Becker for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

While he’s vowed to take his seat in Congress, Rep.-elect George Santos could still face a number of investigations over false statements he made during the campaign.

The 34-year-old New York Republican won a House seat last month, but a series of articles have shown he repeatedly lied about aspects of his background during the campaign. An investigation from the New York Times published last week exposed many of Santos’s lies, but others have emerged in the ensuing days. Both the Forward and CNN reported that Santos had lied about having a Jewish heritage and his grandparents being Holocaust refugees.

Santos initially responded defiantly. “It is no surprise that Congressman-elect Santos has enemies at the New York Times who are attempting to smear his good name with these defamatory allegations,” his attorney said in a statement that went on to incorrectly attribute a quote to Winston Churchill.

But in interviews he gave on Monday, Santos conceded he had “embellished” both his educational history (he had no degrees from Baruch College or New York University, as he claimed) and professional résumé (he did not work for Citigroup or Goldman Sachs, as he stated). Santos also admitted that he lied about owning 13 properties, saying he owns none, despite putting on his campaign financial disclosure form that he owned an apartment in Brazil worth seven-figures.

Campaign material for George Santos
Promotional materials from the George Santos campaign. (Jackie Molloy/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Santos, who had presented himself as a successful businessman, also admitted to the New York Post that he owed a former landlord thousands of dollars in back rent. The Times had reported that a judge ordered Santos to pay more than $12,000 to the landlord for several months of unpaid rent and that Santos had written a check that bounced. The Times also reported that Santos owes $5,000 to a former roommate.

While it’s not a crime to lie to voters during a campaign, it is a crime to file false forms to the federal government. The penalty can include fines and up to five years in prison. Earlier this year, former Rep. Jeff Fontenberry, R-Neb., was sentenced to two years probation after being found guilty of lying to the FBI about illegal contributions to his reelection campaign.

Once the new Congress is seated next month, Santos could be investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics, with one watchdog group already calling for an inquiry. The office does not have the ability to remove a member from Congress, which requires a vote from two-thirds of the chamber. The last member to be booted was Ohio Democrat Jim Traficant, who was voted out 420-1 after being convicted on 10 counts of bribery, tax evasion and racketeering.

Letitia James
New York Attorney General Letitia James speaking at a press conference in September. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Santos could also face an investigation from New York state Attorney General Letitia James, who told local TV news outlet NY1 last week her office would review Santos’s situation. The next round of financial disclosure forms for congressional members and their senior staff members are due on May 15.

Even when coming clean, Santos apparently told further lies.

“I never claimed to be Jewish,” Santos told the Post. “I am Catholic. Because I learned my maternal family had a Jewish background I said I was ‘Jew-ish.’”

Santos did, however, explicitly claim he was Jewish. The Forward reported Tuesday that Santos called himself “a proud American Jew” in a position paper his campaign shared with Jewish and pro-Israel leaders. On Nov. 19, House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had boasted at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s conference that Santos and Rep. Max Miller, R-Ohio, would increase the number of Jewish House Republicans to three for the first time in 24 years.

Santos also responded to a report from the Times that as a 19-year-old he was charged with stealing a checkbook in Brazil and writing checks from it, telling the Post, “I am not a criminal here — not here or in Brazil or any jurisdiction in the world. Absolutely not. That didn’t happen.” A court filing in Brazil showed Santos was identified by his full name, date of birth, and parents’ names when he was charged and that he had confessed to the police. He was never tried because police reportedly could not locate him.

Aerial view of Jacarezinho favela in Rio de Janeiro
An aerial view of a slum in Rio de Janeiro. (Florian Plaucheur/AFP via Getty Images)

Santos, who ran as an openly gay candidate, also addressed a Daily Beast report that he had not disclosed a 2019 divorce from a woman.

“I dated women in the past. I married a woman. It’s personal stuff,” Santos said, adding, “I’m very much gay. I’m OK with my sexuality. People change. I’m one of those people who change.”

During his round of interviews Monday, Santos did not go into detail about his massive windfall of personal wealth over the last two years. When he ran for Congress in 2020, Santos listed an income of $55,000 from LinkBridge Investors and no major assets. In 2022, he listed an income of $750,000 from the Devolder Organization and millions in assets, including a Rio de Janeiro apartment.

Adding to the confusion, Devolder was registered in Florida and was dissolved in September for failing to file an annual report and then reinstated by Santos a day after the initial Times report. Santos had described it as his “family’s firm” but did not list any clients that had contributed to his massive change in financial outlook.

In an interview with City and State NY, Santos said he opened his own firm and “it just worked because I had the relationships and I started making a lot of money. And I fundamentally started building wealth.” With that, he added, “I decided I’d invest in my race for Congress. There’s nothing wrong with that.” Santos lent his 2022 campaign more than $700,000.

George Santos
George Santos. (Jackie Molloy/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The North Shore Leader, a Long Island outlet, reported in September that Santos had filed his disclosure 20 months late and with an “inexplicable” rise in his net worth to $11 million.

One place where Santos actually did recently work, Harbor City Capital, was accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of operating a Ponzi scheme.

Santos has also drawn scrutiny for receiving tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from a Russian businessman with Kremlin ties. Santos has criticized President Biden’s support for Ukraine’s self-defense against Russia’s invasion.

“It’s not like Ukraine is a great democracy,” Santos told the Washington Post. “It’s a totalitarian regime. They’re not a great bastion of freedom.”

Republican leadership has remained quiet on Santos, with their narrow majority requiring every GOP vote possible moving forward.

Robert Zimmerman, the Democrat who lost to Santos by 8 points in last month’s election, called on him to resign.

Robert Zimmerman
Democratic candidate Robert Zimmerman who lost to Santos by 8 points, is calling on him to resign. (John Minchillo/AP)

“The reality is Santos flat-out lied to the voters of NY-03,” Zimmerman said in a statement last week. “He’s violated the public trust in order to win office and does not deserve to represent Long Island and Queens.”

“Santos’s failure to answer any of the questions about these allegations demonstrates why he is unfit for public office and should resign,” Zimmerman added. “It demonstrates why there must be a House Ethics Committee, Federal Elections Commission and U.S. Attorney investigation immediately.”

Progressive critics of the state and local Democratic Party have argued that the party’s failure to uncover the vast majority of these questions about Santos’ biography in either of his two congressional races — he also ran in 2020 — demonstrates that the party establishment is incompetent and should be replaced.

“No press release from the Zimmerman campaign, the state Democratic Party or the DCCC referenced the bulk of the Times reporting,” noted City & State’s Rebecca Lewis.

“They were too busy sending out one anti-Zeldin mailer and finding out how to run phonebanks! Poor [New York Democratic Party Chair] Jay Jacobs was overwhelmed,” tweeted political consultant Bill Neidhardt.

“As an NY-3 constituent, not a single ad, mailer, or canvasser communicated these details to voters,” tweeted former New York City Council candidate Jaslin Kaur.

Jacobs, who has faced calls to resign after Democrats lost four New York House seats in the November midterm elections, told City & State that the blame game takes focus away from Santos’s dishonesty.

“I would simply say that the focus shouldn’t be on [the] opposition research element — which was done, by the way, by the campaign,” Jacobs said. “I would focus our attention on George Santos and what he did.”