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The incredible rise and dramatic fall of George Santos

The former Republican lawmaker and suspected fraudster’s murky and ever-changing biography makes it difficult to parse truth from fiction, Bevan Hurley reports

Tuesday 13 February 2024 18:50 GMT
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George Santos
George Santos (EPA)

Congressman George Santos’ shortlived tenure has been anything but dull — his rise to power and fall from grace have been equally mired in controversy.

After less than two years in Congress, his list of lies and scandals finally caught up with him, as he was ousted from Congress following the release of a damning House Ethics Committee report.

On 1 December, Mr Santos became only the sixth lawmaker ever to be expelled from the House, with a vote of 311 to 114.

Though the entire GOP leadership opposed his removal, 105 Republicans joined with Democrats in pushing him out.

The committee report appeared to be the final nail in the coffin, finding “substantial evidence” that Mr Santos had broken federal laws after finding “additional uncharged and unlawful conduct,” which included using campaign funds to make purchases at Hermes, Sephora, and OnlyFans.

In 2022, Mr Santos was elected as the Republican Party’s first openly gay, non-incumbent member of Congress, and touted himself as a living embodiment of the American dream.

But he has since been exposed as a serial fabricator, and now an accused criminal.

George Santos: The imposter in Congress | On The Ground

Here’s what we know about the rise and demise of George Anthony Devolder Santos:

A ‘first generation American’

Given his prodigious propensity for telling fibs, basic details of Mr Santos’ personal history, such as his real name, marital status, and precisely where he was born merit a healthy dose of scepticism.

According to his congressional website during his brief stint in office, Mr Santos is a “first generation American” born in Jackson Heights, Queens, in July 1988. His parents were both Brazilian immigrants – Fátima Devolder, who worked as a housekeeper, and Gercino Antônio dos Santos Jr, a house painter. He has a younger sister, Tiffany Lee Devolder Santos.

Former co-workers who worked with Mr Santos at Dish Network in College Point in 2011 and 2012 told Patch that he used to tell them he was born in Brazil. Then, he was known as Anthony Devolder or George Devolder.

His true birthplace is significant because the Constitution requires members of Congress to have been US citizens for seven years before being elected. Mr Santos has claimed in interviews that he is a dual citizen of Brazil and the United States.

George Santos has faced a wave of scandal since his election to Congress in November (Associated Press)

Attorney Tiffany Bogosian told The Washington Post that she attended the same junior high school as Mr Santos. She said that even at a young age, he would fabricate parts of his biography. She put this down to his impoverished background and said he had still been learning English while in junior high and was bullied during his time there.

From 2008 to 2011, Mr Santos lived in Brazil where his mother was staying at the time.

In 2008, Mr Santos was accused by Brazilian authorities of using a stolen chequebook and fake name at a clothing shop outside Rio de Janeiro. Citing court documents, The New York Times reported that Mr Santos told police in 2010 that he and his mother had stolen a chequebook from a man that she used to work for, and used it to make $1,300 in illegal purchases of clothes and shoes.

George Santos pleads not guilty to 13 charges, including wire fraud and theft

In March last year, Mr Santos admitted the crime and agreed to pay the victim back as part of a non-prosecution agreement, CNN reported.

On the campaign trail, Mr Santos repeatedly claimed that he’s of Jewish descent and that his grandparents were European Jews who fled Hitler.

Jewish cultural groups and online sleuths later unearthed records showing his grandparents were born in Brazil.

Mr Santos later clarified to theNew York Post that he had said he was “Jew-ish”.

‘Sue me’

While living in Brazil, Mr Santos also reportedly performed as a drag queen named Kitara Ravache when he was a young man.

In January 2023, Brazilian drag artist Eula Rochard posted photos to social media herself with a person wearing a red dress, bright red lipstick and dangling chandelier earrings who she identified as Mr Santos.

Journalist Joâo Fragah also said he had interviewed Mr Santos in costume.

Politico investigation later found that a user on Wikipedia named Anthony Devolder claimed to have participated in drag shows in Brazil as a teenager.

George Santos angrily denied he had been a drag queen in Brazil, before saying ‘I was young and I had fun at a festival’ (AP)

Mr Santos issued a furious denial of the claims on social media, at a time when his Republican Party was vilifying and seeking to ban drag queens from performing in some states.

He called allegations that he “‘performed’ as a drag Queen ... categorically false.” However, the next day, Mr Santos appeared to admit that he had participated in drag.

“I was young and I had fun at a festival. Sue me for having a life,” he said.

He moved back to New York in 2011, working as a bilingual customer services representative at a call centre for Dish Network, a satellite TV firm, in Queens, where he would have earned about $15 an hour.

Mr Santos pushed a stream of lies over a series of interviews: he claimed to have graduated from NYU business school, that he was a star volleyball player at Baruch College, that he attended the elite private school Horace Mann in New York but failed to graduate due to financial difficulties, and that he worked at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. These claims have either been disproven or not substantiated.

In February last year, the non-profit Reclaim the Records obtained court records showing he married a Brazilian woman in 2012. His former wife, who has not been identified, filed for divorce in 2019.

He has since said he is married to a Brazilian man, whom he identified by the first name of Matt. He reportedly told Brazilian publication Piaui in November 2020 that his husband’s name is Matheus Gerard.

Early political career

Mr Santos’ murky and ever-changing biography makes it difficult to parse fact from fiction during his early forays into politics.

In 2018, he began volunteering for the campaign of Republican Vickie Paladino, who was running for state Senate. He reportedly boasted of his ties to Wall Street donors who could contribute but did little actual work.

The next year, he reportedly made his first attempt to get elected to Congress but failed to secure enough signatures to get on the Queens County Republican Committee.

That month he launched his campaign for the United States House of Representatives in New York’s 3rd Congressional District in 2020 against Democratic incumbent Thomas Suozzi.

No other candidates put their names forward. When pressed by reporters why he lived out of the district, he claimed to reside at an address that turned out to be his treasurer’s.

George Santos’ long history of lying may have finally caught up with him (REUTERS)

He lost the general election by about 46,000 votes, but still exceeded Republican expectations for the strongly Democratic district. He refused to concede the election.

Mr Santos spoke at the Stop the Steal rally at the Ellipse in Washington, DC on the day of the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021, claiming his election had been stolen. A roommate would later allege that Mr Santos had worn his stolen $520 Burberry scarf to the rally.

In 2020, while running for Congress, he began working at Florida investment firm Harbor City Capital, which was later accused in a civil lawsuit by the Security and Exchange Commission of running a $17m Ponzi scheme.

Mr Santos has publicly denied any involvement in the alleged fraud.

‘He’s most likely just a fabulist’

Soon after his 2020 election defeat, Mr Santos began raising money for the next congressional race.

New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who is now the third-ranking Republican in the House, endorsed him in 2021.

Later that year, a vulnerability study commissioned with Mr Santos’ approval found alarming revelations, and many of his staffers resigned, according to The Times.

Among other things, it found he had falsely claimed to have been endorsed by Mr Trump, along with many of the lies about his job history and personal wealth that have since been revealed.

Congressional leaders learned of his deceptions by 2022. According to The Times, Dan Conston, the leader of the Kevin McCarthy-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund, tried to circulate the report’s findings to prominent donors.

Mr Santos was helped by a couple of developments ahead of his election to Congress in 2022: Thomas Suozzi, the 3rd District’s incumbent lawmaker, announced he would not seek re-election to instead run for governor and redistricting led to a new congressional district map, which added several Republican areas.

Mr Santos again ran unopposed for the Republican nomination, and faced Democrat Robert Zimmerman in the general election, the first House race between two openly gay candidates.

Still, Mr Santos went on to take the district that November by eight points.

Rep. George Santos is followed by members of the media as he walks in the US Capitol on April 26, 2023 in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

Santos’ lies revealed post-election

A bombshell New York Times report on 19 December revealed to a broader audience for the first time many of Mr Santos’ fabrications and lies about his employment and education history.

A flood of further embellishments soon followed, including the 9/11-related death of his mother, claims he had been a producer on the failed Broadway production of Spider-Man, how he had cheated associates out of clothes and cash and how he had stolen $3,000 that had been raised to save a disabled veteran’s pet dog.

A pressure group formed by citizens in his 3rd Congressional District began holding protests outside his campaign office to try to force his departure from Congress.

As Mr Santos’ pile of scandals grew, he threw himself behind Kevin McCarthy’s campaign for Speaker of the House.

Mr McCarthy welcomed the support given his razor-thin majority and refused to take action on any of the mounting ethical scandals, even as a growing number of New York Republicans called for Mr Santos to be removed from Congress.

At the State of the Union in February 2023, Mr Santos had an altercation with Mitt Romney after the Utah Senator told him he didn’t belong in Congress and “should be embarrassed”.

“Tell that to the 142,000 who voted for me”, Mr Santos reportedly replied.

Following the speech, Mr Romney called the New York Republican a “sick puppy”.

In March, the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into whether Mr Santos had “engaged in unlawful activity”.

Credit card scams and unpaid rent

Revelations about Mr Santos’ alleged grifts and schemes continued to emerge.

In February, it was reported that New York City housing court records showed that Tiffany Lee Devolder Santos owed $39,050 in back rent to a landlord.

Mr Santos had reportedly failed to pay rent in the Queens apartment he shared with his sister before being elected to Congress.

The next month, a Brazilian man — Gustavo Ribeiro Trelha — who was deported from the US after being convicted of credit card skimming fraud reportedly told federal authorities that Mr Santos was the mastermind of the scheme.

Trelha claimed Mr Santos had taught him how to skim card information and clone cards in Seattle in 2017. Trelha claimed Mr Santos visited him in jail in Seattle after his arrest and threatened him not to reveal his part in the scheme to authorities.

Responding to the allegations at the time, Mr Santos told reporters that he was “innocent”.

In January, Mr Santos also claimed to have been the victim of a mugging and assassination attempt in New York.

Political positions

Mr Santos has claimed in interviews that he was exactly the kind of candidate that could grow the Republican Party’s reach with younger voters.

He aligned himself strongly with Donald Trump and the Maga wing of the Republican caucus, attending the former president’s indictment on criminal charges in New York.

Other than platitudes about wanting to be a “voice for every community in the district”, Mr Santos didn’t set out any ideological vision on his campaign website or in statements.

In February 2023, he was spotted wearing an AR-15 lapel in Congress after a spate of recent mass shootings.

He described abortion as “barbaric” in a 2022 speech to the Whitestone Republican Club.

He introduced several pieces of legislation in early 2023, including bills to raise the cap on the state and local tax deduction and cut federal funding to countries that persecute LGBT+ people.

Mr Santos raised eyebrows in April when he introduced the Medical Information Nuanced Accountability Judgment Act, which would ban the government from mandating certain vaccines.

The acronym, MINAJ, was thought to relate to Nicki Minaj’s comments in 2021 that her cousin’s friend had become impotent and suffered swollen testicles after taking the Covid-19 vaccine.

Arrest and indictment

On Tuesday 9 May 2023, Mr Santos was criminally charged by prosecutors in New York’s Eastern District, accused of defrauding donors by spending “thousands of dollars of the solicited funds on personal expenses, including luxury designer clothing and credit card payments.”

Mr Santos allegedly lied on financial disclosure forms he filed to the House by overstating his income from one source and failing to disclose income from another, while also lying about his earnings from his company, the Devolder Organization.

He also stands accused of insurance fraud for applying for Covid employment benefits in New York while still employed in Florida.

Following Donald Trump’s playbook, Mr Santos called the charges a “witch hunt” and said he intended to run again for Congress.

In October last year, the Justice Department handed down a 23-count superseding indictment, adding 10 new felony charges into the mix. He has pleaded not guilty. Federal officials accused Mr Santos of stealing campaign contributors’ identities to make more than $44,000 in credit card purchases.

‘A disgusting politicized smear’

On 16 November 2023, Mr Santos’ pursuit of re-election came to a grinding halt after the House Ethics Committee released its report on Mr Santos. The report said it found “substantial evidence” that Mr Santos broke federal laws.

Mr Santos “knowingly” filed false or incomplete reports with the FEC, used campaign funds for personal purposes, engaged in fraudulent conduct in connection with RedStone Strategies LLC, and engaged in “knowing and willful violations” of the Ethics in Government Act related to his financial disclosures, the Committee wrote.

The embattled New York Republican quickly took to X to defend himself. He called the report a “disgusting politicized smear,” adding “I’ve come to expect vitriol like this from political opposition but not from the hallowed halls of public service”.

In the rambling X post, he also announced that he would not be running again in 2024. “I am humbled yet again and reminded that I am human and I have flaws, but I will not stand by as I am stoned by those who have flaws themselves,” Mr Santos wrote.

On 1 December, that choice was taken out of his hands altogether when he was ousted in a long-awaited expulsion vote.

Hours before the vote – as it became increasingly likely he wouldn’t survive – Mr Santos claimed he was “at peace” with his expulsion.

But, he had a sharp change of heart after the votes were tallied.

In a line that was perhaps fitting of the drama he has brought in his short tenure on Capitol Hill, Mr Santos fumed: “To hell with this place.”

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