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N.Y. Rep. George Santos pleads not guilty to federal fraud charges

U.S. Rep. George Santos leaves the Capitol Hill Club as members of the press follow him on January 31, 2023 in Washington, DC. Amid ongoing investigations into his finances, campaign spending and false statements on the campaign trail.
Alex Wong
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Getty Images
U.S. Rep. George Santos leaves the Capitol Hill Club as members of the press follow him on January 31, 2023 in Washington, DC. Amid ongoing investigations into his finances, campaign spending and false statements on the campaign trail.

Updated May 10, 2023 at 5:26 PM ET

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. — Republican Rep. George Santos surrendered to federal authorities at a courthouse in suburban Long Island on Wednesday facing 13 counts of criminal wrongdoing.

Federal prosecutors say he allegedly "devised and executed a scheme" aimed at defrauding donors to his 2022 political campaign.

"This indictment seeks to hold Santos accountable for various alleged fraudulent schemes and brazen misrepresentations," said U.S. Attorney Breon Peace in a statement.

"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."

At a Wednesday afternoon court hearing, Santos pleaded not guilty to all of the charges. His attorney reached an agreement with federal prosecutors for him to be released on $500,000 bond while the legal proceedings move forward.

Santos received permission from prosecutors and the federal judge to continue campaign activity with his movements severely restricted. He's allowed to travel to New York City and Washington, D.C. But trips outside those two areas can only be undertaken with special permission from the government.

Santos is defiant, says he will fight the "witch hunt"

Speaking outside the courthouse after entering his plea, Santos said he will not step down from Congress and will continue to seek a second term.

"The reality is, is it's a witch hunt because it makes no sense that in four months, four months, five months, I'm indicted," Santos said of the federal government's case.

He didn't provide any explanation for why the U.S. government would pursue him unfairly, nor did he offer facts to dispute the detailed allegations laid out by prosecutors in court filings.

"I'm going to fight my battle," Santos said adding that he would "clear my name."

According to the criminal indictments, Santos claimed money donated to his 2022 campaign would fuel his bid for office, paying for TV advertisements.

Instead, he allegedly spent the cash on luxury designer clothes and to make a car payment and pay personal credit card bills.

Santos also faces a charge that in 2020, he fraudulently applied to receive unemployment benefits when he was employed and running for Congress in his first bid for public office.

Congressman George Santos addresses reporters following his court hearing in Central Islip, NY. He said he will not resign, will run for reelection and that he will clear his name. "I will defend my innocence."
/ Brian Mann/NPR
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Brian Mann/NPR
Congressman George Santos addresses reporters following his court hearing in Central Islip, NY. He said he will not resign, will run for reelection and that he will clear his name. "I will defend my innocence."

"At the height of the pandemic in 2020, George Santos allegedly applied for and received unemployment benefits while he was employed and running for Congress," Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly said in a statement.

Her office aided in the investigation.

According to prosecutors, Santos also lied to the House Committee on Ethics about his income, his wealth and other financial matters.

Documented deceptions give way to criminal charges

Long before these charges were filed, it was clear the freshman lawmaker had pushed the boundaries of conventional political scandal. After his victory in last November's midterms, it was revealed that he fabricated most of the persona presented to voters.

Santos lied in interviews and campaign documents about his education, his professional accomplishments, his record as a champion volleyball player and his family's experiences in the Holocaust.

He also faced multiple investigations into how he raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash, including a mysterious $700,000 gift he made to his own election effort.

It remains unclear where that money came from.

Santos, who has announced he plans to run for reelection in 2024, has become a pariah among many GOP leaders in New York, especially on Long Island.

The influential Nassau County Republican Committee distanced itself from Santos and called for him to resign.

Santos has remained defiant and at times even seemed to revel in the glare of media attention.

He has previously admitted to "embellishing" his resume, but repeatedly denied any criminal wrongdoing.

On May 6, Santos posted on Twitter a photo of a fortune cookie he said he had received at a meal.

"Life is more fun when you're the underdog competing against the giants," the fortune read.

House GOP leaders keep Santos in the fold

For now Santos will remain a member of Congress in full standing. He said Wednesday he plans to hurry back to Washington to cast votes this week.

His growing controversy has created a political headache for Republicans, especially in New York, where GOP candidates face tough reelection fights next year.

Speaking Tuesday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he wouldn't demand that Santos resign.

He compared the criminal charges against Santos to past cases involving Democratic lawmakers who remained in office while their cases played out.

"If a person is indicted, they're not on committees, they have the right to vote, but they have to go to trial."

Phone calls to Santos' congressional offices and to his attorney have gone unanswered. Santos also hasn't commented about the charges on Twitter.

Separate probes are also underway by the Nassau County district attorney in New York and the House Ethics Committee in Washington, D.C.

A statement released by the House panel in April stated an investigative subcommittee will examine whether Santos "engaged in unlawful activity" during his 2022 campaign.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brian Mann