First on CNN: Rep. George Santos charged by Justice Department in federal probe
Editor’s Note: This story originally published on May 9, 2023. For the latest on Santos, read here.
Federal prosecutors have filed criminal charges against New York Rep. George Santos, the Republican lawmaker whose astonishing pattern of lies and fabrications stunned even hardened politicos, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
Santos, who was taken into federal custody Wednesday morning, is expected to appear at federal court in New York’s Eastern District. He faces 13 federal charges: seven counts of wire fraud, three counts of money laundering, one count of theft of public funds, and two counts of making materially false statements to the House of Representatives.
The congressman’s attorney declined to comment. Spokespeople for the Brooklyn US Attorney’s Office, the Justice Department and the FBI declined to comment.
Santos was en route back to New York Tuesday night, skipping House votes for the evening, according to a source familiar.
A spokeswoman for Santos, Naysa Woomer, would not respond to shouted questions from reporters Tuesday afternoon and abruptly departed the congressman’s DC office with her backpack when asked about the federal charges against him. Prior to her departure from the office, CNN witnessed three staffers for Santos abruptly depart with their bags. They wouldn’t talk when pressed for comment.
The freshman congressman, who was elected last year to represent a district that includes parts of Long Island and Queens, has been under investigation in multiple jurisdictions and by the House Ethics Committee.
Top Democrats, joined by some New York Republicans, have been calling on Santos to resign over allegations ranging from criminal behavior on the campaign trail to petty personal dishonesty stretching back more than a decade.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said that he will look at the charges before determining if he thinks Santos should be removed from Congress.
“I’ll look at the charges,” the California Republican told CNN on Tuesday.
Santos was spotted by CNN in the Capitol earlier in the day on his way in and out of McCarthy’s office. The speaker said he did not know why Santos had been there, and that the congressman had not told him personally about the charges.
During his brief time in office, Santos has been accused of breaking campaign finance laws, violating federal conflict of interest laws, stealing cash meant for an Iraq War veteran’s dying dog, masterminding a credit card fraud scheme and lying about where he went to school and worked.
Santos has admitted to making some misleading claims about his education and financial status, but continues to deny the more serious allegations.
During his victorious campaign last year, Santos ran according to the Republican midterm playbook, hammering his Democratic opponent over crime and inflation. The message resonated in the New York suburbs, where GOP candidates flipped four seats on their way to winning a narrow House majority.
But as Santos’ past came under closer scrutiny, with large chunks of his official biography revealed to be conjured from nothing, he increasingly adapted the persona of a right-wing troll.
He played up his support for former President Donald Trump and once claimed that Democrats were “trying to ban toilet paper.”
New York Republicans have sought to distance themselves from Santos, insisting they knew nothing about his shadowy past and some repeatedly urging him to leave office.
“I reiterate my call for George Santos to step down,” New York Rep. Mike Lawler said in a statement. Lawler flipped a Democratic-held seat north of New York City last year and is expected to face a serious challenge in 2024.
Republicans from more conservative districts were less explicit.
New York Rep. Nicole Malliotakis told CNN, “I’m not surprised. I understand this is where it was headed,” but stopped short of asking Santos to resign.
“I would love to see someone new run because I can tell you that we will hold that seat and so the sooner Santos leaves, the sooner we can get someone in there that is not a liar,” the Staten Island Republican said.
GOP Reps. Ryan Zinke of Montana and Blake Moore of Utah pointed to the House Ethics Committee’s probe of Santos.
“Let the ethics investigation play out, and if it produces anything, he should be removed,” Moore said.
Zinke told CNN that “if there is a charge and the charge has veracity, (the Ethics Committee) should look at it.”
“I’m surprised (Santos) made it as long as he did,” said Zinke, who resigned from his position leading the Department of the Interior during the Trump administration amid multiple probes. (An inspector general report later found he misused his position.)
Arkansas Rep. French Hill, who is close to House GOP leadership, said he wanted to see the charges but added, “I do believe that if a member of Congress is charged with a federal crime they should resign.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are attempting to shake off the embarrassment of not exposing Santos sooner ahead of what promises to be an expensive race to win back his and other neighboring seats in 2024.
“Now that Santos has been indicted, it is incumbent on Speaker Kevin McCarthy to eliminate the stain of Santos on this hallowed institution by removing him from Congress immediately,” New York Rep. Daniel Goldman, a former federal prosecutor and counsel in Trump’s first impeachment, said in a statement. “We cannot wait any longer.”
The cracks in Santos’ façade first made national headlines in late December 2022, when The New York Times published a long investigation that questioned large chunks of the personal story he sold to voters during the campaign. What followed, though, was often stranger than fiction. A seemingly endless string of new revelations ranging from allegations he stole a dog from an Amish dairy farmer to his own past claims – all false – of playing high-level college volleyball.
As the stories piled up, former friends and associated of Santos began to come forward and share stories claiming he had ripped them off or misled them about his financial and professional situation. A former roommate of the congressman told CNN earlier this year that Santos showed signs of “delusions of grandeur” during their time living together.
“The truth has finally come out,” said Gregory Morey-Parker, who also accused Santos of stealing his scarf. An allegation, like so many others, that Santos denies.
The charges do not, from a legal standpoint, affect Santos’ status as a member of Congress. Nothing in the Constitution’s requirements for congressional office bars individuals under criminal indictment or conviction from serving, except for the 14th Amendment prohibitions for certain treasonous conduct committed after a member has taken the oath of office.
Under the formal rules for the US House of Representatives, according to a Congressional Research Service report, “an indicted Member may continue to participate in congressional proceedings and considerations.”
However, if a member is convicted of a crime that could result in a punishment of two or more years in prison, they are instructed under House rules not to participate in votes on the floor or in committee votes.
McCarthy, when asked whether he would continue to stand by Santos, told CNN Tuesday his policy is that a member of Congress should resign after being found guilty of charges and referenced former GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who resigned after being convicted of concealing information and making false statements to federal authorities in connection with a probe into illegal campaign contributions.
“Just like we had before with Jeff Fortenberry, he had the same ability, I removed him from committees, but he was found guilty and then I told him he needed to resign. That is my policies and principles on this,” McCarthy said
This story has been updated with additional developments.