Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Meet George Santos, the ‘mini Trump’ Republican who lied his way into the US Congress

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George Santos’s name has dominated headlines in the United States for weeks.

But the freshman congressman has yet to update the signage at his district office in Douglaston, Queens.

The brown-brick shopfront in New York’s third congressional district still bears the name of Mr Santos’s Democratic predecessor, although office staff claim plans for a refit are “underway”.

Even without putting his stamp on the office, Mr Santos’s constituents seem acutely aware of the media spotlight on their new local member in the US House of Representatives, who is accused of lying about his background to win votes.

Many passers-by were scathing of his conduct. 

“I think he’s a phoney,” said Carol Santrani, who was walking with friends.

“He should resign. And he should maybe even be prosecuted.”

While the residents in George Santos’s Queens district happily claim ‘New York’s best potato salad’, many have disavowed their new representative in Congress.(ABC News: Joanna Robin)

Ms Santrani’s friend, Marylin Gold-Mandell, agreed.

“I feel the same way,” she said. 

“He lied. And he shouldn’t be allowed to represent anybody.” 

Mr Santos was hailed as a rising star in the Republican Party after defeating Democrat Robert Zimmerman in the contest for the open congressional seat last November.

His sparkling credentials and moving personal story made him a formidable opponent on paper. 

But, in reality, the son of Brazilian migrants who boasted Wall Street business acumen was far from what he seemed. 

After twice slipping through his party’s vetting processes — he ran for office unsuccessfully in 2020 — Mr Santos was outed as a serial liar by the New York Times shortly after his election.

Revelations of his mounting falsehoods have since led to calls for his removal from office, from both sides of politics, and angered his constituents.

A woman with black glasses in an orange puffer jacket smiles at the camera
Laurie Fox, who has lived in area for 20 years, said her dog was more qualified to represent New York’s third congressional district than George Santos.(ABC News: Joanna Robin)

“He looks the part,” said Laurie Fox, who has lived in the area for roughly two decades.

“However, reading into his history, my dog is more qualified.”

So far, top Republicans including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy have stood by their embattled colleague, dubbed “Scamtos” on Twitter.

But amid the snowballing scandals, including investigations into his campaign financing and business dealings, it remains to be seen whether Mr Santos will face serious political or legal consequences.

How George Santos duped voters

Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, George Santos described himself as “a first-generation American born in Queens”, who aspired to be the first openly gay Republican to win a House seat as a non-incumbent.

His maternal grandparents fled Jewish persecution in Ukraine, settled in Belgium, then escaped to Brazil during World War II, according to his campaign biography.

Mr Santos claimed his parents later immigrated to the United States “in search of the American dream”, and his mother, Fatima Devolder, became the “first female executive at a major financial institution”.

His own impressive resume had him following in her footsteps, pursuing a career in finance at top Wall Street firms, after excelling at university where he ranked in the top 1 per cent of his undergraduate class then received an MBA from New York University.

George Santos dressed in a suit and yellow tie walks with his head bowed infront of a gold wall.
George Santos pitched himself as ‘a first-generation American born in Queens’ hoping to be the first openly gay Republican to win a House seat as a non-incumbent.(Reuters: Elizabeth Frantz)

On the campaign trail, he railed against the “radical left” and pledged “to end the inflation crisis and lower gas prices”, moulding himself in the image of Donald Trump and parroting his talking points.

Mr Santos even cited the former president’s book, Trump: The Art of the Deal, as his favourite.

And the pitch seemed to work.

He amassed enough cash from donors to bankroll his campaign, then flipped a pivotal seat as Republicans swept all four on Long Island.

The region was an election night bright spot for the Republican Party, which underperformed elsewhere, securing only a razor-thin majority in the House and failing to win back the Senate.

But Mr Santos’s political career may have peaked that night, with the candidate who listed “integrity and honesty” in government among his political passions swiftly outed as a con man.

Exposing the Republican’s litany of lies

There was a major flaw with the life story George Santos had sold voters — most of it was bogus.

In late December, the New York Times revealed the congressman-elect had fabricated much of his biography, including by inventing a vast family-owned real estate portfolio and an animal rescue charity.

After the investigation dropped, Mr Santos acknowledged his “resume embellishment” but refused to back down.

“I will be sworn in,” he said in a radio interview.

“I will take office.”

George Santos, wearing a puffer jacket over a checked shirt, kneels to pat a golden retriever
US media outlets found no evidence to support George Santos’s claim he founded an animal rescue shelter.(Facebook: George Satnos 4 Congress NY-3)

Mr Santos reportedly never worked at Goldman Sachs or Citigroup, as he had claimed. 

He didn’t attend Baruch College, New York University or any other tertiary institution.

Questions have also swirled around the veracity of his claim his grandparents survived the Holocaust, after genealogical records obtained by a Jewish publication showed his mother’s parents were born in Brazil.

He has since admitted to being raised Catholic. 

“I never claimed to be Jewish,” Mr Santos told the New York Post

“I am Catholic. Because I learned my maternal family had a Jewish background, I said I was ‘Jew-ish’.”

Mr Santos also repeatedly pushed the lie his mother was working in the south tower of World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, surviving only to die of cancer years later.

In July 2021, he further twisted the truth by tweeting “9/11 claimed my mother’s life”.

Several US media outlets have now reported not only was Ms Devolder not in New York during the terrorist attack but a 2003 visa application also showed she had returned to Brazil in 1999.

Mr Santos has often tried to falsely tie himself to national tragedies; he also claimed without proof that a company he worked for “lost four employees” in the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016.

Adding another ironic layer of confusion, the congressman has refuted other people’s claims about his past, including that he competed as a drag queen in Brazil and stole funds intended to save the life of a veteran’s service dog.

While lying to the public may be unethical and unpopular, it’s not necessarily a crime or even a violation of House ethics rules, according to John Mark Hansen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

“As far as I know, the rules don’t say anything about how you have to tell the truth about where your degree came from or whether you had Jewish grandparents or not,” he said.

“What I think is potentially a problem for him is that a lot of [the scrutiny] relates to where he got his money for his campaign.” 

Mr Santos’s brazenness has led state and federal prosecutors to examine his personal and campaign-related financial filings, which could potentially uncover criminal wrongdoing.

It has also led Brazilian authorities to reopen a 2008 criminal fraud case against him.

“The gravest danger for him is in the campaign finance area,” Mr Hansen said. 

The ABC visited Mr Santos’s district office and was told by a staff member, who would not give his name, to direct questions for the congressman via email to two communications officers in his Washington DC office.

Neither responded in time for publication. 

The local reporter who saw the red flags

While George Santos’s backstory spectacularly unravelled in the wake of his election to the House, Long Island’s North Shore Leader, a local news outlet, sounded the alarm about his creative accounting back in September.

Reporter Maureen Daly questioned how Mr Santos’s personal wealth had inexplicably skyrocketed in just two years.

Citing his campaign finance disclosures, she noted he had no assets worth more than $US5,000 ($7,200) in 2020.

But in 2022, Mr Santos pegged his net worth at $US11 million ($15.9 million) including “personal bank accounts of between $1 million and $5 million; a condo in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, of between $500,000 and $1 million; and business interests of between $1 million and $5 million”.

Ms Daly expressed her surprise that a man of such purported means would live in a humble rented apartment in Queens.

A silver car with a sticker of Donald Trump in the window drives through a neighbourhood of Queens, New York
Locals on Long Island compared George Santos to former president Donald Trump.(ABC News: Joanna Robin)

But in a shifting national media landscape where hard-hitting local news is underfunded and disappearing, the story failed to cut through.

Gregory Wawro, a professor of political science at Columbia University, said Republican Party leadership should also shoulder some of the blame for overlooking, or ignoring, several signals of wrongdoing.

“The biggest hurdle that a congressional candidate faces in winning office is raising the extraordinary amounts of money that you need to make a race competitive,” he said.

“And [Mr Santos] went from basically being an uncompetitive candidate, to being a candidate who could raise enough money to run a race and be successful in the New York media market, which is insanely expensive.”

Mr Wawro described congressional candidates as “individual entrepreneurs”, who raise their own money and put together their own organisations to seek their party’s nomination.

“It’s very hard to do if you don’t have a network, if you’re not a candidate who has held prior elected office,” he said. 

“But Santos managed to do that.” 

George Santos wearing a jumper and suit sits in Congress looking over as two men laugh and whisper
George Santos was hailed as a rising star in the Republican Party after defeating Democrat Robert Zimmerman in the midterms.(Reuters: Evelyn Hockstein)

In 2022, Mr Santos took in an eyewatering $US3 million ($4.3 million) in political donations

How he managed to do that is now being closely scrutinised.

Recently, his connection to businessman Andrew Intrater, who is the cousin of a Russian oligarch sanctioned by the US government, has raised national security concerns.

Mr Intrater and his wife each donated the maximum $US5,800 (around $8,300) to Mr Santos’s campaign, as well as tens of thousands more to political committees linked to him in recent years, according to Federal Election Committee (FEC) filings obtained by The Washington Post.

With Mr Santos’s encouragement, Mr Intrater also invested $US625,000 (nearly $900,000) in a business accused of operating a Ponzi scheme.

He told The New York Times he too felt duped by the congressman and had taken his concerns to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

One of the most generous contributors to Mr Santos’s campaign, though, was the candidate himself.

Over a year he lent himself about $US700,000 (more than $1 million) through a series of incremental payments, the source of which is unknown.

Mr Wawro said that while recent decisions by the US Supreme Court had “opened the floodgates” for “ungodly sums of money to be funnelled into congressional races”, the FEC has strict rules governing how candidates raise and spend money.

For example, there is a strict cap of $US5,000 (about $7,100) per person for contributions to campaigns and candidates are not allowed to accept contributions from non-US citizens or spend the money on personal expenses.

But Mr Wawro said the bipartisan agency was unlikely to use its “most extreme powers” in this instance.

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