The Tangled Life Of George Santos

Every so often a story unfolds that's just so shocking that news stories read more like scripts for a Netflix comedy-drama series. Sure, there's intrigue, suspense, and a sort of edge-of-your-seat desire to see what's coming in the next installment, but there's also the belief that what's unfolding on the screen couldn't possibly happen in real life. That's true: Real-life stories are usually much, much weirder.

Take the story of George Santos, the newbie politician who got elected to a New York congressional seat before the wheels, as it were, started coming off the cart. According to a report by The New York Times, some of Santos's own campaign team knew that some things weren't entirely as advertised and quit over it. Meanwhile, opponent Tom Suozzi was so sure of his win that he didn't bother doing any of his own vetting. It all led to the head of New York State's Conservative Party, Gerard Kassar, admitting, "The reality is there's no defense, it shouldn't have happened."

What is "it"? A whole sordid affair. First, though, it's worth noting that a thinkpiece from The New Republic put forward a terrifying idea. Calling Santos "a serial liar, an egotist, a nihilist," they suggest that he's a good thing for the Republican party. Why? The bandwidth Santos takes up takes away from other stories of extremists pushing tales of QAnon and space lasers.

This is how the whole thing started to unravel

In November of 2022, Republican George Santos and Democrat Robert Zimmerman competed for a recently vacated congressional seat in New York. The final result was tight, and with just around 20,000 votes separating the two nominees, Santos was ultimately declared the winner with 53.8% of the vote. Within days, The New York Times ran a story suggesting he possibly falsified some of his professional background, and even though it wasn't even a quarter of the way through the century, it's likely to be remembered as one of the great understatements of said century.

The paper had kicked off an investigation into the claims made by Santos during his campaign and found that they didn't have to look far to find ones that they couldn't verify. For starters, Santos said he had worked at both Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, but there were no records for him at either. His purported alma mater, Baruch College, had no record of him ever attending.

Initially, the Santos camp responded to the allegations via a lawyer named Joe Murray, who said they were not surprised "that Congressman-elect Santos has enemies at The New York Times who are attempting to smear his good name with these defamatory allegations." That was just the beginning.

Here's what's been proven a lie

George Santos has made a ton of claims that have been found to be bogus, starting with his family heritage, including the name Zabrovsky, which was supposedly dropped post-World War II. However, when CNN worked with a genealogist to do some digging, they found that wasn't the case at all — and furthermore, they found no traces of either Ukrainian or Jewish heritage in his family tree. Neither, it was found, did his mother flee European socialism: She was born in Brazil, as was his father.

When they investigated the claims that he went to an elite private school called Horace Mann, a school spokesperson said they had "no evidence that George Santos (or any alias) attended Horace Mann," similar to what representatives of his purported alma mater, Baruch College, said when they were asked about their supposed student. In addition to Goldman Sachs and Citigroup being unable to confirm he was employed there, the hospitality tech company MetGlobal was silent on whether or not he'd worked there.

A slew of other claims have turned out false, too, including the fact that four of his employees were killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting, he was a COVID-era landlord severely impacted by the freeze on evictions, he was a victim of fraud, he was at the January 6 riots, his mother died as a result 9/11, and his grandparents survived the Holocaust.

The company who said he was a perfect fit was less-than-reputable

One of the things that George Santos apparently didn't lie about was the time he spent as an employee of a company called Harbor City Capital. According to the findings of The Washington Post, when he was appointed as the company's regional director of New York, they described him as "a perfect fit." For what? The bottom line is that the year after he was hired, the company was accused of being a Ponzi scheme.

Santos, meanwhile, says he was unaware of anything shady going on, although the Post's own investigation suggests that he had been shown evidence of what was going on behind the curtain and continued to work there. They also found that many of his future campaign donors and cohorts were met through Harbor City Capital, a company that dealt with the kind of high-rollers that are precisely who an up-and-coming politician would love to meet.

Among those who lost an amount of money that can only be described as "a boat-load" was Andrew Intrater, who told The New York Times that it was, in part, Santos' promise that he and his family had $4 million tied up in the company that convinced him to invest a mind-blowing $625,000 into the company. He shared documents, claims, and text messages from Santos, containing false information — which he only discovered when it was too late.

His use of campaign funds came under scrutiny

Everyone's shoved their change from McD's into a coat pocket and then forgot about it, but when The New York Times took a look at George Santos' campaign funds, they found a whopping $365,000 that was unaccounted for. Although the legal experts they consulted with said it wasn't necessarily a red flag that there was something illegal going on, it was Bill McGinley, a former lawyer for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who said the accounts were "all over the place, and do not make any sense."

There was, however, a very widespread trend that became almost immediately apparent. Campaigns are required to document expenses over $200, and anything under that is off-limits to the Federal Election Commission. In Santos' books, dozens of entries were recorded at $199.99. They covered things like meals, parking, Uber rides, hotel spending, and payments made to retail stores like Target and Best Buy. There were even a series of $199.99 travel expenses paid to Amtrak and Delta Airlines, raising some serious questions about what, exactly, was going on here. 

Campaign Legal Center Director Saurav Ghosh explained to the Times: "It again falls into the category of reporting that is so ludicrous that it's completely wrong, and suggests that they're covering up how they actually spent their money."

His COVID claims are uncertain at best

In April of 2023, George Santos introduced the Medical Information Nuanced Accountability Judgment Act (MINAJ), which would block federal orders making vaccinations mandatory, unless that vaccination has been on the market for at least a decade. Like most of the world, Santos was impacted by COVID: He appeared on Newsmax, where he was billed as a COVID survivor.

The Washington Post's Dan Diamond got curious about his COVID claims when other information started coming out about him, so he sat down and cross-referenced things like social media posts, television appearances, and other campaign-related information. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he found some discrepancies. In a nutshell, the earliest versions of Santos' story have him severely compromised by an immune deficiency stemming from a brain tumor and radiation treatment, coupled with acute bronchitis. After saying that severe symptoms lasted for around a month, he later changed the story to say that he had a bit of a fever for a few days but was fine with cold medicine.

The dates that Santos said he first became symptomatic vary, too, and Diamond found a series of interviews that overlapped with a time frame that — in some versions — Santos painted his condition as dire. While he would later share photos of himself apparently in hospital quarantine, details remain vague.

His marriage was called into question

When The New York Times got a copy of the background check George Santos' own people ran on him in order to determine whether or not there were any red flags that might throw a wrench in the works, they found that his marriage was one of the things they deemed "questionable." Why? When Santos was elected, he became the first openly gay, non-incumbent elected to Congress for the Republicans — and that's a huge deal. However, even as friends and family said that yes, Santos had always identified as gay and had always been involved with men, it came out that he had been married to a woman for years.

Santos would later explain on City & State that he had a "complicated life," continuing, "I did marry young, and I married a young woman at the time, and we pretty much were in love. [But] I set myself free, and I set her free." 

While Santos said that it took him a while to come to terms with his sexuality, those who knew him say otherwise — including a man who he lived with in 2014 — while Santos was married. According to Pedro Vilarva, he left when he found out that Santos was wanted on counts of check fraud. It's not entirely surprising, then, that LGBTQ+ activists began calling on the House Ethics Committee to investigate his marriage and his claims.

There were accusations that he was behind a credit card fraud scheme

In 2017 George Santos flew to Seattle to attend a bail hearing for a man who he claimed was an old family friend. Gustavo Ribeiro Trelha was being arraigned after his arrest for ATM fraud, allegedly spending three days skimming credit and debit card information from ATMs in Seattle. The audio recording of the trial was first published by Politico, and in that recording, Santos confirms that yes, he absolutely, for sure, really, positively did work for Goldman Sachs.

Fast forward to March of 2023, when Trelha — who had been deported back to Brazil — sent a letter to the FBI and the Secret Service. In it, he wrote: "I am coming forward today to declare that the person in charge of the crime of credit card fraud when I was arrested was George Santos/Anthony Devolder. Santos taught me how to skim card information and how to clone cards. He gave me all the materials and taught me how to put skimming devices and cameras on ATM machines."

Along with the declaration, there was also the fact that Trelha had rented a room in a Florida apartment Santos owned and accusations that he had an entire warehouse dedicated to his skimming operations. A third roommate came forward to support the accusations.

George Santos... or Anthony Devolder?

George Santos, it turns out, only started going by "George Santos" when he started cementing his political persona. That was in 2019: Before that, he was widely known as Anthony Devolder. Devolder came before the ultra-conservative, Trump-leaning social media swing, and the name change apparently came about the same time he formed a Facebook group "United for Trump 2020." In a video (viewed by CNN), he called himself "George Anthony," more commonly called "Anthony," and when he announced his congressional campaign as "George Santos," he reportedly had to explain to his followers, "I'm a victim of circumstances. My parents were Latino, so it's George Anthony Devolder-Santos."

Meanwhile, he used both names — and variations of those names — on social media, and does it get weirder? Of course it does.

Politico uncovered a now-deleted Wikipedia page last updated in 2011, and it seems to contain what they describe as boasts about his show business career. In it, he wrote about appearing in shows including "Hannah Montana," having met director "Steven Spilberg," and starring with "Uma Turman, Chris Odanald, Mellisa George, and Alicia Silver Stone in the movie 'THE INVASION." (The movie exists, kind of, but none of those people are in it.)

More and more came out about his reported animal charity

Few things will win hearts faster than the idea that someone's helping animals in need, and from 2013 to 2018, George Santos — under the name Anthony Devolder — claimed to be doing precisely that. In fact, he claimed that his charity, Friends of Pets United, had helped more than 2,500 animals ... in spite of the fact that it never seems to have been officially registered as a charity and has no social media or web presence.

Several people who worked with the charity have come forward with questions, including a fundraising partner, who said the check he wrote was altered to be made out to "Anthony Devolder" instead of the charity, and another Bronx-based rescue who worked with Santos/Devolder for a fundraising event. Instead of the thousands she was expecting, she got a check for $400 and told The New York Times, "If you're doing fundraising in my name, and you're claiming you can make a couple of thousand, and you're sending me $400, then something's off."

Then, there's the heartbreaking story of retired Navy vet Richard Osthoff. His service dog, Sapphire, developed a tumor that needed immediate and expensive surgery and was directed to Devolder's charity. He set up a GoFundMe for Sapphire, but Osthoff says he never saw the money. There's no happily-ever-after: Sapphire never got her surgery and died within months. The case has since gained the attention of the FBI.

Here's how his Brazilian fraud case worked out

It wasn't just American authorities who raised questions about George Santos: When he became arguably one of the country's most high-profile congressmen amid a lot of questions, the Brazilian government absolutely noticed — and they had some questions for him, too. Their interest was pertaining to a 2008 case where Santos was accused of stealing a checkbook belonging to a person in the care of his mother, then using those checks to purchase a variety of things, including clothes and shoes. A statement from Rio de Janeiro prosecutors said that now that they knew where he was, they were going to reopen the case.

Santos had apparently been questioned about the fraudulent checks several times, with CNN reporting that Brazilian police records showed: "He [Santos] acknowledged having been responsible for forging the signatures on the checks, also confirming that he had destroyed the remaining checks."

Although Santos denied involvement or wrongdoing, he ultimately made a deal with Brazilian authorities to settle the matter. He agreed to pay around $5,000, with about $2,800 of it going directly to the victim. Bruno Simoes told CNN that it wasn't enough: "It's ridiculous. It's a bargain, the guy paid $5,000 in bail."

He plead not guilty to a slew of charges

When federal charges were filed against George Santos in the spring of 2023, they included counts of wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds, and making false statements to the House of Representatives. Although his camp was — predictably — initially quiet, it was soon reported that he had pleaded not guilty to all 13 charges. 

Meanwhile, there was the question of what would happen to Santos' seat in Congress. Kevin McCarthy — the Republican House Speaker — told CNN that he would be reviewing the case, charges, and evidence in entirety before making a decision on whether or not he should be removed, while other colleagues were less kind. Fellow New York Rep. Mike Lawler (Republican) called for his resignation, while another Republican representative from New York, Nicole Malliotakis, said, "I would love to see someone new run, because ... the sooner Santos leaves, the sooner we can get someone in there that is not a liar."

Has any of it been true?

Now, to answer a few questions, starting with: "What has George Santos said that's true?" According to NY Mag's deep-dive into claims, falsehoods, and truths, they boiled the truths he's told down to a single statement: "As he has claimed, Santos is a 34-year-old Republican born in Queens who will represent New York's wealthiest congressional district. Other than that, pretty much everything is under scrutiny."

Santos is known for giving countless reporters and interviews the run-around, so that's why it's particularly shocking that when he went on Piers Morgan's TalkTV show in February of 2023, he admitted, "I've been a terrible liar." He did, however, stand by some things like the claims that his mother was in the Twin Towers on 9/11, and claimed the media was simply out to get him. 

He also dropped a little bit of a truth bomb. When an incredulous Morgan asked if he honestly thought no one was going to find out his falsehoods, he responded, "Well, I'll humor you this. I ran in 2020 for the same exact seat for Congress and I got away with it then" (via Yahoo).