CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. — While the truth may not set U.S. Rep. George Santos free, a federal judge did Wednesday.
The oft-disparaged first-term New York congressman pleaded not guilty in a Long Island courtroom to a 13-count federal indictment charging him with wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making false statements to Congress.
“This is the beginning of the ability for me to address and defend myself,” Santos told reporters after the hearing, vowing to clear his name. “It makes no sense that in four months, five months, I’m indicted!”
The famously fact-challenged Santos, wearing sunglasses as he left court, also invoked a favorite mantra of ex-President Donald Trump by dismissing his prosecution as a “witch hunt.” He later tweeted the same message in all caps.
A media horde gathered outside the courthouse to wait for the Republican politician’s emergence after the hearing, with the defendant affirming his intention to run for a second term and declaring he would not resign.
Santos, despite his sketchy claims of business success, was released after posting $500,000 bond pending a June 30 court date. He arrived for the hearing clutching papers in his hands, wearing a dark blue blazer, tie and khaki pants, and sat quietly during the court proceeding.
His attorney gently patted the defendant as they sat side by side in court, and Santos spoke only in response to the judge.
The elected official, who at one point ran his hand through his hair, was ordered to surrender his passport and barred from traveling without permission to anyplace outside Long Island, New York City and Washington.
“I’m going to keep fighting,” Santos insisted outside the court. “I’m going to keep fighting for what I believe in. And now I have to keep fighting to defend my innocence. I’m going to do that.”
Laundry list of charges
Earlier, Santos, 34, facing the laundry list of charges, dodged reporters as he entered the Long Island federal courthouse in Central Islip to surrender to federal authorities. He dodged reporters on his way inside.
The allegations include a 2020 scheme to collect COVID-19-related unemployment funds while working as an investment firm director, a campaign finance fraud operation where he used donor money to buy designer clothes and pay his personal debts, and a string of untruths about his assets and income to the House of Representatives.
“This indictment seeks to hold Santos accountable for various alleged fraudulent schemes and brazen misrepresentations,” Brooklyn 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.”
Just last month, Santos announced his plan to run for reelection next year. The freshman legislator ignored calls for his resignation from Republican lawmakers, even as reports emerged charging details on his resume regarding his career and education were inaccurate.
Santos had also inaccurately claimed his mother was working in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and admitted to lying about working at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs and about the colleges he claimed to attend.
Santos won his race for Congress in 2022 on a wave of deception, lying about his education, religion, family history, professional experience and property ownership. The house of cards collapsed soon after his victory, with his fictional claims exposed bit by bit as the first-term politician turned into a punch line.
But Santos refused to step down despite mounting outrage, admitting to some of the lies and exaggerations but insisting he had never done anything illegal.
Federal prosecutors, in court papers, sought the forfeiture of any property involved in the cited offenses.
“He used political contributions to line his pockets, unlawfully applied for unemployment benefits that should have gone to New Yorkers who lost their job due to the pandemic, and lied to the House of Representatives,” Peace said.
His 2022 donor fraud scheme netted him $50,000, prosecutors said. Santos enlisted a Queens-based political consultant to help create what he told donors was a super PAC and a “social welfare organization” to help fund his 2022 congressional campaign, claiming the operation wasn’t subject to contribution limits, prosecutors said.
The consultant told donors the money would help fund television ads and campaign expenditures, while expanding how they could wire those funds into the so-called super PAC’s bank accounts.
Text messages and emails said the company existed “just to help this race,” to “raise another $700,000 to reach our goal of $1.5 million to invest in (Santos’) race” and to “purchase ads supporting George Santos,” according to the indictment.
Except, Santos never registered his company with the IRS as a super PAC or as a “social welfare organization.” And the $50,000 collected from two donors was used for luxury designer clothing, credit card payments, a car payment, Santos’ personal debts, cash in Santos’ pockets and bank transfers to his associates, prosecutors allege.
The COVID scheme started after the federal government set up its pandemic unemployment program in March 2020. Santos applied that June, claiming he had been out of work since March 22, according to the feds.
He collected nearly $25,000 in unemployment funds through April 15, 2021. Records showed that Santos was still collecting his $120,000 annual salary as regional director of a Florida-based investment firm, the feds allege.
Asked about the unemployment scheme outside the courthouse, Santos said: “I don’t understand where the government is coming from. I will present my defense.”
“I’m going to fight the witch hunt,” Santos said to reporters “I’m going to take care of clearing my name and I look forward to doing that.”