An American desperate to help a loved one stranded in a foreign country. A retiree who can’t seem to cut through Medicare’s red tape. A high school student hoping for a congressional nomination to a military academy — one of the few routes for admission to a place like West Point.
For the approximately 746,449 people in Nassau and Queens who live in New York’s 3rd Congressional District, one of the main channels for tackling such tasks should be the office of their new representative, George Santos.
But he and his staff are busy dealing with post-election and still-unfolding revelations that he had distorted or outright lied about almost all of his claimed background, including his resume, pedigree, money, religion, family, home, schooling and charity.
He’s since been accused of numerous other fabrications, including falsely claiming to having been a volleyball star at Baruch College, which has no record of him ever attending, and being "Jew-ish." There are investigations into Santos underway by the county district attorney, state attorney general and U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, plus an ethics complaint. Part of what’s being looked at are his financial dealings.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The Santos team has been handling the fallout from post-election revelations that he had distorted or outright lied about almost all of his claimed background.
- He says his office is busy helping constituents and “actually trying to fight for the local people.”
- But his office has been hard to reach, and neighboring politicians have been hearing from his constituents — intentionally or otherwise.
For at least some of January, constituent calls to his office were either misdirected or sometimes did not go through.
Santos (R-Nassau/Queens) insists he and his staff are busy working for constituents on a variety of matters.
On a YouTube show hosted by Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz, Santos said: “We’re fielding calls in the office already, people are asking for, as simple as White House tour tickets. Which we’ve already engaged with the White House liaison, we are requesting passport issues and then all the way to an issue that’s very near and dear in my community, which is we have an organized crime that’s taking carjackings, and that’s to a whole new level.”
Over the course of several hours on a recent Thursday and Friday, no one appeared to be coming to his district office, in Douglaston, Queens, except a few office workers and news reporters.
Still in big letters on the awning and window: the name of Santos' predecessor, Democrat Thomas Suozzi.
And for at least part of the month, Santos' office has been all but unreachable by phone, due to telecom problems, including a broken menu last week and the week before. Calls were being mass-transferred, without explanation, to fellow freshman GOP Rep. Nick LaLota (R-Amityville), who has sought Santos’ resignation. The transfers were a surprise to LaLota's staff, who had to ask the House telecom staff to undo the forwarding.
Given all of Santos' troubles, Ross Wallenstein, who worked for now-former Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, a Democrat, from 2003 to 2007, wonders how effective Santos can be.
“Congressional staffs work with offices from around the country in order to help district residents across a variety of topics,” Wallenstein told Newsday.
“Many of these offices may think twice about engaging with someone like Mr. Santos, whose national reputation clearly precedes him — much to the detriment of his 700,000 constituents in Nassau and Queens,” Wallenstein said.
Who's helping at home
The expectation that members of Congress would help the people back home has existed since the dawn of Congress, according to a 2017 report by the Congressional Research Service. Back in the 18th century, there were constituents seeking congressmen's assistance with Revolutionary War pensions. And these days, the types of issues representatives are called about has vastly expanded.
“It’s the only real interaction that most constituents will have with their congressman, other than seeing them on TV or in the newspaper, is reaching out to their office and saying, ‘Can you help me with this thing that my family’s going through or that we need in our community?’” Wallenstein said.
In certain cases, he said, a congressman himself will get on the phone with a government agency to advocate for a constituent, adding extra weight to the request.
Earlier this month, some 30 Long Island Republican officials said they’d refuse to work with Santos, suggesting his constituents turn elsewhere for help, such as to the office of Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-Island Park), who represents the 4th District.
Santos told Gaetz: “I’m here actually trying to fight for the local people, the absurdity of saying that George Santos is — and we’re going to redirect the constituents’ requests to another members of Congress’ office instead of mine. That’s absurd. And it’s illegal.”
The House Ethics Manual regulates how much help congressional offices can give to nonconstituents, according to Rob Walker, a former chief counsel for the House and Senate ethics committees.
“There are limited ways in which they can help — they can’t help across the board — but there is some flexibility, but it’s limited,” he said.
D'Esposito’s spokesman Matt Capp said that office has been getting 10 calls a day from Santos constituents, some asking for help, others just venting frustrations about Santos.
“We’re definitely getting a steady stream of calls from residents of the 3rd Congressional District, for sure," Capp told Newsday.
"They’re either not getting a response from Santos’ office, or they really don’t trust that office, it seems, to really go about their business,” Capp said.
Capp said his office has done its best to help nonconstituents, on top of handling 250 cases as of Friday afternoon for its own constituents. Otherwise, he said, the office has referred Santos callers to New York’s two U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who have jurisdiction to help any New Yorker.
Kristen Cianci, a spokeswoman for Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport), cited the ethics manual and said that Garbarino’s office is limited in what it can do.
“If it’s something as simple as, like, finding out information or something that can be cleared up with a phone call to the right contact, we can help give you the right information, refer you to resources you need, but as far as being a liaison with a federal agency, we’re limited in what we can do.”
And at LaLota’s office, the intake software won’t even allow a case about a nonconstituent to be entered into the computer system, said his spokeswoman Lauren Lembo.
A spokesman for Schumer, Angelo Roefaro, said his boss’ office has not seen an uptick in calls for help but would be more than happy to handle additional requests.
He said the office gets “hundreds” of constituent calls statewide every day. Two examples last week: a Nassau woman who hadn’t gotten her passport despite applying months ago and also needs help with a visa issue; a Suffolk man who wants his tax refund from the IRS.
Gillibrand spokesman Edwin Molina said in an email that “we are ready to handle any additional casework.”
Back in the district
Told about Newsday's forthcoming article examining Santos’ constituent services work, his communications director, Naysa Woomer, wrote back to ask to know more about the article's scope and also whether other offices in the delegation were being queried. She didn't answer emailed questions, respond further or otherwise comment. She didn’t pick up her cellphone; her voicemail hadn’t been set up as of Thursday afternoon. Nor did Santos himself answer his cellphone or return a message.
Congress was not in session last week, a time when representatives typically make public appearances in their districts.
D’Esposito, for example, barnstormed through the district in several publicized appearances, touring a union carpenter training facility, helping cut a ribbon for a discount store in Merrick, delivering citations at a Martin Luther King Jr. event with schoolchildren in Oceanside, swearing in a leader of junior county firefighters in Syosset, and celebrating a constituent’s 100th birthday in East Meadow, Capp said.
By contrast, Santos appears to have done one visit, uninvited and unannounced — to a Hindu temple in New Hyde Park, and he publicized it the next day on Twitter.
In an interview, leader Sridhar Shanmugam said Santos, who has said he is Catholic but also “Jew-ish,” came to the temple, Shri Saneeswara, about 7:45 p.m. Tuesday for the regular prayer of the charting of the planets. Shanmugam said Santos came alone for prayer.
“Like any devotee, he came and prayed for about three hours,” Shanmugam said. “We did not invite him."
On Saturday, Santos landed at LaGuardia Airport from Washington, D.C., and was chased by reporters asking questions he mostly didn’t answer. He did say he’s met with constituents.
“Yes, I have. Plenty! I went to D.C. last night for a meeting, and I’m back here today, I was here all week, and it’s been fabulous serving the people," he said, according to ABC/7 footage.
In Queens on Thursday at Santos’ district office, a staffer who wouldn't give his name described a buzzing constituent-services operation. “We’ve been helping constituents all morning,” the staffer said outside the district office, in Douglaston. “Constituents have been coming in, and we’ve been supporting them.”
Over the course of several hours, Newsday saw only what appeared to be staffers come and go from the office, a storefront on Northern Boulevard between a mortgage broker and an Episcopal churchyard.
Asked for aggregate totals of how many constituents have sought help from the office, the staffer said: “I can’t disclose that information.”
“Because that’s their personal, private business, and they’re not just a tally; they’re people in need.”
With John Asbury and Howard Schnapp
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Rep. Andrew Garbarino's full name.