CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (AP) — U.S. Rep. George Santos, the New York Republican infamous for fabricating 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.
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 from custody on a $500,000 bond following his arraignment at a Long Island federal courthouse, about five hours after turning himself in 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.
Santos spoke only a few words in court, answering “yes, ma’am” to the judge presiding over the hearing, which lasted about 15 minutes. His lawyer, Joseph Murray, said Santos plans on continuing his reelection campaign and asked the judge for permission to travel freely, though he did surrender his passport.
“We finally get to address all of these allegations,” Murray told reporters as he entered court.
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.
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.”
Reached by The Associated Press on Tuesday, Santos said he was unaware of the charges.
Santos has defied calls to resign — some from fellow Republicans — as details of his fictitious resume came to light, though he did decline his committee assignments. He has given no indication that he plans to step aside because of his indictment. In the past, members of Congress in both parties have remained in office while facing charges.
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 and gave the person contact information for potential donors.
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 fabricated life story was revealed. Some renewed those calls after news of his indictment.
“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.
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who confronted Santos at President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address in February, said Santos should have resigned a long time ago.
“I think we’re seeing that the wheels of justice grind slow, but they grind fine,” Romney said.
House Republican leaders Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise were more circumspect, saying Santos deserved a presumption of innocence until 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.