CENTRAL ISLIP, NY - U.S. Rep. George Santos, the New York Republican infamous for fabricating key parts of his life story, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges he duped donors, stole from his campaign and lied to Congress about being a millionaire, all while cheating to collect unemployment benefits he didn't deserve.
Afterward, he said wouldn't drop his reelection bid and defied calls to resign.
Santos' 13-count federal indictment was a reckoning for a web of fraud and deceit that prosecutors say overlapped with his fantastical public image as a wealthy businessman — a fictional biography that began to unravel after he won election last fall.
Santos, 34, was released on $500,000 bond following his arraignment, about five hours after turning himself in to authorities on Long Island to face charges of wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making false statements to Congress. He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
"This is the beginning of the ability for me to address and defend myself," a cheerfully combative Santos told reporters swarming him outside a Long Island federal courthouse. He said he's been cooperating with the investigation and vowed to fight the prosecution, which he labeled a "witch hunt."
His lawyer, Joseph Murray, was more circumspect, saying: "Any time the federal government comes after you it’s a serious case. We have to take this serious."
Santos said he planned to return to Washington, where the indictment is amplifying doubts about the freshman's ability to serve. House Republican leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach, saying Santos is innocent until proven guilty. Others are reiterating previous calls for Santos to step aside.
"I think we’re seeing that the wheels of justice grind slow, but they grind fine," said Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who confronted Santos on the House floor at President Joe Biden's State of the Union address in February.
Asked about Santos on Wednesday, Biden said, "I’m not commenting," adding that anything he said would be construed by some interfering in the investigation. Asked if Congress should expel Santos, Biden said, "That’s for Congress to decide."
Sketch by Christine Cornell.
Among the allegations, prosecutors say Santos created a company and then induced supporters to donate to it 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 credit card and car payments.
Santos also is accused of lying about his finances on congressional disclosure forms and obtaining unemployment benefits while he was making $120,000 as regional director of an investment firm that the government shut down in 2021 over allegations that it was a Ponzi scheme.
The indictment "seeks to hold Santos accountable for various alleged fraudulent schemes and brazen misrepresentations," U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said. "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 didn’t directly address the specifics of the charges to reporters, but when asked why he received unemployment benefits while employed, Santos cited a job change and confusion during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Santos, sporting his usual crewneck sweater, blazer and khakis, said little during the arraignment, which lasted about 15 minutes. Reporters spilled from the gallery to the jury box, joined by a handful of constituents.
Rep. George Santos speaks to the press after he pleaded not guilty to financial fraud charges.
"He should be thrown out of Congress and put in prison," declared Jeff Herzberg, a Long Island resident who spent hours waiting to see Santos' arraignment. "I hope that day comes soon."
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.
In reality, Santos didn't work at the big financial firms he claimed had employed him, didn't 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 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.
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 to 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’ election bid and that there would be no limits on how much they could contribute, the indictment said. Santos falsely claimed 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' 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 U.S. Rep. Marc Molinaro, a Republican representing parts of upstate New York.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., 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 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' 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.