Rep. George Santos pleads not guilty to fraud, money laundering, theft charges on Long Island
Long Island congressman George Santos was arrested Wednesday on federal charges alleging he orchestrated a series of schemes while running for Congress, including ripping off political donors, fraudulently receiving unemployment benefits authorized under COVID-19 even though he had a job and lying on his congressional financial disclosure forms.
George Anthony Devolder Santos, 34, as he was identified in the 13-count indictment, pleaded not guilty during his initial appearance in federal court in Central Islip Wednesday afternoon.
The freshman congressman, who admitted lying about much of his personal biography soon after he was elected, held a stack of papers as he entered the courtroom wearing a navy blazer over a charcoal sweater and white dress shirt. He was not handcuffed.
Santos, who appeared uncharacteristically ashen as he spoke quietly with his attorney, answered "yes, ma'am" to several procedural inquiries from U.S. Magistrate Judge Anne Y. Shields, including whether he had discussed the indictment with his attorney.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Long Island congressman George Santos pleaded not guilty to a 13-count federal indictment alleging he defrauded donors, fraudulently obtained unemployment funds and lied on financial disclosure forms.
- Santos called the criminal case against him a "witch hunt" and vowed to fight the charges while he seeks reelection.
- The freshman congressman was released on a $500,000 bond secured by three individuals whose names were not released. He is scheduled to return to court June 30.
But the Republican who represents New York's 3rd Congressional District, which includes parts of Nassau and Queens, later commanded a horde of media after he was released on a $500,000 bond, vowing to prove his innocence and calling the case against him a "witch hunt."
"Now I’m going to have to go and fight to defend myself," said Santos, who answered several questions from reporters. "The reality is it’s a witch hunt."
Santos is charged with seven counts of wire fraud, three counts of money laundering, one count of theft of public funds, and two counts of making materially false statements to the House of Representatives as part of schemes prosecutors said began in 2020. Santos faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison on the top counts if convicted and the potential forfeiture of his assets.
“This indictment seeks to hold Santos accountable for various alleged fraudulent schemes and brazen misrepresentations,” U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District Breon Peace said in a statement. “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. He used political contributions to line his pockets, unlawfully applied for unemployment benefits that should have gone to New Yorkers who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and lied to the House of Representatives."
Santos' defense attorney Joseph Murray said it's important that his client be allowed to travel to support his reelection campaign. Santos has announced he's seeking a second term.
"We're going to share information with the government, which we believe would clear things up," Murray said after the arraignment. He declined to provide details of the exculpatory evidence.
Santos surrendered to authorities shortly after 9 a.m. at the federal courthouse, where he was arrested and underwent the booking process, which includes a mug shot and fingerprints. Three people, who were not named in court, agreed to secure his bond. A source familiar with the matter said one of the people securing the bond is Santos' father.
Before driving away with Vish Burra, his congressional office's director of operations, at the wheel of a brown Ford Bronco SUV, Santos said he would not resign from Congress.
"This has been an experience … for a book," Santos told reporters before leaving.
Santos agreed to conditions of his release that will limit his travel to Long Island, New York City and Washington, D.C. He will only be allowed to travel elsewhere in the continental United States with prior approval from pretrial services.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Harris said Santos, who gave a Flushing, Queens, address as well as a place where he is staying in Washington, D.C., has already surrendered his passport to the FBI.
Santos is due back before U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Seybert at noon on June 30.
The charges cover three alleged schemes. Federal prosecutors alleged Santos, starting in September 2022 during his successful run for Congress, enlisted a Queens-based political consultant, who was not identified in the indictment, to falsely tell donors that their money would be used to elect Santos, namely with the purchase of television advertisements.
Two donors each transferred $25,000 to a limited liability company operated by Santos, prosecutors said, and the money was then transferred to Santos' personal bank accounts. Santos allegedly then withdrew cash and used much of that money to buy designer clothing, pay personal debts and to transfer money to his associates, prosecutors said.
The New York Times identified the donors as Raymond Tantillo, a Suffolk County car dealer, and Andrew Intrater, a Manhattan investor.
About two years prior, in mid-June 2020, Santos, then making an annual salary of $120,000 as a regional director of a Florida-based investment firm, applied for unemployment benefits through the New York State Department of Labor, although he was employed and not eligible for the benefits, prosecutors said. Santos falsely said he was unemployed since March 2020, prosecutors said. He received benefits until April 2021, worth more than $24,000, even though he was still employed, falsely affirming his eligibility for the benefits each week, prosecutors said. Santos received $564 in weekly unemployment benefits, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors also said Santos filed two financial disclosure forms to the House of Representatives — in May 2020 and September 2022, in connection with his two House campaigns — that allegedly falsely stated his income.
On the first form, he said his income consisted of salary, commission and bonuses totaling $55,000 from an unnamed company, and he failed to report his $120,000 salary from the investment firm, prosecutors said. He also allegedly said he received a commission bonus of more than $5,000, which prosecutors said was "overstated."
On the second financial disclosure form, Santos allegedly falsely said he made $750,000 in salary from the Devolder Organization LLC, a Florida-based entity of which Santos was the sole beneficial owner, and had received between $1,000,001 and $5,000,000 in dividends from the company.
Santos also said on the form that his checking account contained between $100,001 and $250,000 and he had a savings account with between $1 million and $5 million — all untrue, according to prosecutors.
Santos also allegedly failed to disclose $28,000 in 2021 income from the investment firm and more than $20,000 in unemployment insurance benefits, prosecutors said.
Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly said the indictment was the result of a "lengthy collaboration" between her office, the U.S. attorney and other law enforcement agencies and their commitments to "rooting out public corruption."
“At the height of the pandemic in 2020, George Santos allegedly applied for and received unemployment benefits while he was employed and running for Congress,” Donnelly said in a statement. “As charged in the indictment, the defendant’s alleged behavior continued during his second run for Congress when he pocketed campaign contributions and used that money to pay down personal debts and buy designer clothing."
Santos defeated Democrat Robert Zimmerman in the November general election in the 3rd Congressional District, which straddles portions of Nassau and Queens counties.
Santos became the subject of national scrutiny after The New York Times reported he had apparently lied about his employment and educational background as he campaigned for Congress.
CHARGES AGAINST SANTOS IN THE 13-COUNT INDICTMENT ALLEGING THREE SEPARATE SCHEMES
- Seven counts of wire fraud
- Three counts of money laundering
- One count of theft of public funds
- Two counts of making materially false statements to the House of Representatives as part of schemes prosecutors said began in 2020