In the first week of a new Congress plagued with gridlock, New York Republican George Santos sat all alone, snubbed by his peers over lies about his life story and an ongoing federal investigation into his finances.
Santos, 34, was elected to the formerly left-leaning third district spanning Queens and Long Island on a platform to save the “American dream” that his first-generation Brazilian immigrant parents achieved. A New York Times investigation last month revealed that a significant portion of Santos’ biography is not true, including his claimed prestigious education, substantial career on Wall Street, and impressive real-estate assets.
Santos has since admitted that he lied about much of his personal history and resume, but senior House Republicans have remained largely silent, and it’s likely that Santos will be sworn into office with the other freshmen representatives once the House elects a Speaker.
Santos has said that he intends to serve his congressional term. “To the people of #NY03 I have my story to tell and it will be told next week. I want to assure everyone that I will address your questions and that I remain committed to deliver the results I campaigned on; Public safety, Inflation, Education & more,” he tweeted in December.
Here’s what to know:
Santos’ fraudulent story
During his campaign, Santos bragged about a robust career that he claimed began when he earned a degree from Baruch College and also studied at New York University. After school, Santos claimed to have had a finance career working at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. In December, the Times first reported that none of these institutions had records of Santos’ enrollment or employment, and Santos soon confessed that he had lied on his resume and had never graduated from any college and didn’t work directly for either company.
“I’m embarrassed and sorry for having embellished my resume,” he told the New York Post.
Santos also said he founded Friends of Pets United, an animal rescue organization that saved thousands of cats and dogs, as well as owned 13 rental properties that his family managed as landlords. He had criticized the eviction moratorium, saying that it felt like landlords were being “punished.”
The Times investigation did not find that his nonprofit was a registered tax-exempt organization. It reported that the rescue group had at least one fundraiser in 2017, but the event’s beneficiary said they never received any of the proceeds, according to the paper. The Times also found no records of property ownership in Santos’ name.
According to court records reviewed by the Times, Santos faced eviction notices himself at two properties he rented in Queens in 2015 and 2017, owing more than $12,000 total in unpaid rent.
On a personal level, Santos shared a lot about his upbringing throughout his campaign, highlighting that his mother was Jewish, his maternal grandmother fled to Brazil from Ukraine during World War II, and that although he practiced Catholicism, he was a non-observant Jew—a story that appears to be false, according to the Forward.
When that was called into question, Santos clarified that he’d heard stories about his grandmother being Jewish before converting to Catholicism. “Because I learned my maternal family had a Jewish background I said I was ‘Jew-ish,’” Santos told the Post.
Santos also mentioned that his mother survived the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, but died a few years later from cancer. A public obituary indicates that she died in 2016.
As the first openly-gay non-incumbent Republican elected to Congress, Santos supports LGBTQ rights. The Daily Beast reported last month that Santos failed to disclose his previous marriage to a woman for five years. Santos commented to the Post that he’s dated women in the past but is comfortable with his sexuality now. His divorce went through in September 2019, a few weeks before he filed for his congressional bid.
Santos under investigation
U.S. attorneys and local prosecutors began probes into Santos’ finances last week, eyeing discrepancies in his financial disclosures. Santos lent more than $700,000 to his campaign, which he said came from his family’s firm, the Devolder Organization. According to the Times, he also donated thousands of dollars to other campaigns in the past two years and reported a $750,000 salary along with more than $1 million in dividends from the company. Both investigations are ongoing with little available public information.
Santos is also being investigated by Brazilian authorities over a dormant case from 2008 when he was 19 years old. Santos seemingly spent some time in Brazil while his mother was working there as a nurse. He faced fraud charges for stealing a checkbook from one of the people his mother took care of, using it to spend almost $700 at a clothing store. Santos and his mother confessed to the fraud in 2010, but by the time a judge summoned him, Santos had already returned to the U.S. and Brazilian authorities had been unable to locate him since, according to the Times. Brazilian law enforcement told the Times that they intend to revive the fraud charges.
The GOP’s response
Although Santos could be ousted for his behavior with a two-thirds majority House vote, expulsions are rare and that outcome seems unlikely given the slim Republican majority.
If his conference were to vote him out, Santos’ expulsion would result in a special election in a swing state where President Joe Biden won in 2020. The political risk may be more than what some Republicans are willing to incur, according to political experts.
Experts also question how detrimental it may be for the GOP’s reputation to keep Santos in office. He could potentially be investigated by the House Ethics Committee, but those probes are typically reserved for misconduct during office, not before. Another option is censure, a formal disapproval which would entail the House Speaker reading Santos’ misconduct on the House floor.
Santos has made it clear that he intends to keep his seat. That choice might mean more lonely days in Congress with few allies and limited policy influence.