Federal prosecutors have unsealed a 13-count indictment against New York Rep. George Santos, the Justice Department announced in a release. The charges include wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements to Congress.
Santos entered a not guilty plea to the charges in the indictment on Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. Attorney's office said. He was released on a $500,000 bond, and his next court appearance is set for June 30, according to the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
“This indictment seeks to hold Santos accountable for various alleged fraudulent schemes and brazen misrepresentations,” U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said in a statement Wednesday morning. “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."
Santos spoke with reporters outside court Wednesday after his arraignment. He called the case against him a "witch hunt." He also said he is not resigning, and plans to run for reelection.
"I'm gonna fight my battle, I'm gonna deliver, I'm gonna fight the witch hunt, I'm gonna take care of clearing my name, and I look forward to doing that," he said.
The charges unsealed Wednesday consist of:
- 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 Congress
Among the allegations, prosecutors say Santos induced supporters to donate to a company under the false pretense that the money would be used to support his campaign. Instead, they say, he used the money for personal expenses, including designer clothes and his credit card 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.
Peace charged that Santos "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."
"As alleged, Santos engaged in criminal conduct intended to deceive and defraud the American public," said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the DOJ's Criminal Division. "As this indictment reflects, the Department of Justice will hold accountable anyone who engages in such criminality."
The embattled congressman's falsehoods and misstatements about his past and on campaign finance filings have brought him under scrutiny by local, state, and federal prosecutors, as well as prominent members of both parties.
Last year, after winning a district on the border of Queens and Long Island that voted for President Joe Biden just two years earlier, media outlets began examining the relative newcomer's resume and discovered he had lied or misstated numerous parts of his background, from his professional and academic resume to his heritage, and even his claims that he had employees who died in a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
He admitted to lying about being a college graduate, working at prestigious Wall Street firms, and being a descendant of Holocaust survivors, claiming that his grandparents “fled Jewish persecution in Ukraine, settled in Belgium, and again fled persecution during WWII.”
During his campaign, he referred to himself as “a proud American Jew.”
Confronted with questions about that story, Santos, a Roman Catholic, said he never intended to claim Jewish heritage.
A local newspaper, the North Shore Leader, had raised issues about Santos’ background before the election but it was not until a few weeks after the election that the depth of his duplicity became public.
“He told me, I remember specifically — I’m into sports a little bit — that he was a star on the Baruch [College] volleyball team and that they won the league championship," one local Republican official recalled at a January press conference calling on him to resign.
News of charges was first reported by CNN on Tuesday evening. When reached by the AP on Tuesday, Santos said, “This is news to me.”
“You’re the first to call me about this,” he told the outlet in a brief phone interview.
The House Ethics panel launched an investigation into Santos in March. And Nassau County prosecutors and the New York attorney general’s office had previously said they were looking into possible violations of the law.
Besides questions about his life story, Santos’ campaign spending stoked scrutiny because of unusual payments for travel, lodging and other items.
The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center lodged a complaint with the Federal Election Commission and urged regulators to investigate Santos. The “mountain of lies” Santos propagated during the campaign about his life story and qualifications, the center said, should prompt the commission to “thoroughly investigate what appear to be equally brazen lies about how his campaign raised and spent money.”
In his filings with the FEC, Santos initially said he loaned his campaign and related political action committees more than $750,000 — money he claimed came from a family company.
Yet, the wealth necessary to make those loans seems to have emerged from nowhere. In a financial disclosure statement filed with the clerk of the U.S. House in 2020, Santos said he had no assets and an annual income of $55,000.
His company, the Devolder Organization, wasn’t incorporated until spring 2021. Yet last September, Santos filed another financial disclosure form reporting that this new company, incorporated in Florida, had paid him a $750,000 salary in each of the last two years, plus another $1 million to $5 million in dividends. In one interview, Santos described the Devolder Organization as a business that helped rich people buy things like yachts and aircraft.
Court records indicate Santos was the subject of three eviction proceedings in Queens between 2014 and 2017 because of unpaid rent.
Santos removed himself from committee assignments but has otherwise been steadfast in his refusal to resign, taking on a combative and occassionally trollish persona as he finds support in corners of the far-right, including the influential New York Young Republican Club, which has close ties to former President Donald Trump and his key allies. Santos is a dues-paying member of and donor to the club and its executive secretary, Vish Burra, serves as one of his top congressional aides.
Democrats have been uniform in their calls on him to resign and six freshman Republicans from New York elected alongside Santos last year have joined those calls, but House Republican leadership has held back. With a slim majority in the House, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has relied on Santos' support on key votes, including McCarthy's election to lead the chamber and on the debt ceiling bill Republicans passed last month.
McCarthy signaled that he will still let Santos serve in Congress.
"I think in America, you're innocent til proven guilty," McCarthy told reporters Tuesday ahead of the indictment being unsealed.
"I’ll look at the charges," he said. "If a person is indicted, they’re not on committees. They have the right to vote, but they have to go to trial."
On Wednesday, McCarthy told CNN he wouldn't support Santos' reelection efforts and said he would call on the congressman to resign if the House Ethics Committee determined he broke the law.
"He was already removed from all his committees. In America, there's a presumption of innocence, but they're serious charges," said House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La, said Wednesday. "He's gonna have to go through the legal process."
But other Republicans did not share the view of House GOP leadership.
"We we don't need these distractions," Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack told CNN, adding that it would have "absolutely" been better if Santos resigned. "That's the unfortunate thing. This has been going on now since we took the majority."
"Frankly I would have hoped along the way that Mr. Santos would have done what I believe was the right thing, and of course, if leadership forces action, but for him to do it on his own," Womack added to the outlet.
"He should have resigned a long time ago," Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who famously clashed with Santos at the State of the Union in February, told CNN. "He’s an embarrassment to our party, he’s an embarrassment to the United States Congress ... clearly his misrepresentations have so embarrassed him and our nation that he really should not be in Congress”
"The people of New York’s 3rd district deserve a voice in Congress," Texas GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales wrote on Twitter Wednesday after the indictment was unsealed. "George Santos should be immediately expelled from Congress and a special election initiated at the soonest possible date."
"I reiterate my call for George Santos to step down," Rep. Mike Lawler, a freshman Republican from New York City's northern suburbs, said in a statement Tuesday.
Republican leadership in Nassau County, where the majority of Santos' district is, called on him to resign back in January. A Newsday/Sienna College poll later that month found 78% of voters in his district, including 71% of Republicans, thought he should resign. Last month, he announced he was running for re-election.
“If he's not in jail next summer, I'll be fully campaigning for his Republican primary opponent,” fellow Long Island Republican Rep. Nick LaLota told Spectrum News in April.
President Joe Biden declined to comment on the case Wednesday, saying that Santos' potential expulsion is "for Congress to decide."
The Biden administration similarly declined to comment on the case, citing the independence of the Justice Department.
"It's a case that we're not going to speak to," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said aboard Air Force One on Wednesday, before addressing whether or not McCarthy should expel Santos.
"That's something for the House conference to decide on," Jean-Pierre said of GOP leadership. "How they want to show to the American people want they want their conference to look like, that's up to them."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.