CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (AP) — U.S. Rep. George Santos, 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 said afterward that he wouldn't drop his reelection bid, defying calls to resign.
Santos' 13-count federal indictment was a reckoning for a web of fraud and deceit that prosecutors say overlapped with the New York Republican's fantastical public image as a wealthy businessman — a fictional biography that began to unravel after he won election last fall.
Santos, 34, was released on $500,000 bond following his arraignment, 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 surrendered his passport and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
“This is the beginning of the ability for me to address and defend myself," a cheerfully combative Santos told reporters swarming him outside a Long Island federal courthouse. He said he's been cooperating with the investigation and vowed to clear his name, calling his prosecution a “witch hunt.”
His lawyer, Joseph Murray, was more circumspect, saying: “Any time the federal government comes after you it’s a serious case. We have to take this serious.”
Murray said it was too early to discuss whether Santos would consider a plea deal.
Santos said his immediate plans involved returning to Washington, where his indictment is amplifying doubts about the freshman's ability to serve. House Republican leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach, saying Santos is innocent until proven guilty. Others are reiterating previous calls for Santos to step aside.
“I think we’re seeing that the wheels of justice grind slow, but they grind fine,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who confronted Santos on the House floor at President Joe Biden's State of the Union address in February.
Asked about Santos on Wednesday, Biden said, “I’m not commenting,” adding that anything he said would be construed by some interfering in the investigation. Asked if Congress should expel Santos, Biden said, “That’s for Congress to decide.”
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 credit card and car payments.
Santos also is accused of lying about his finances on congressional disclosure forms and obtaining unemployment benefits while he was making $120,000 a year 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."
Santos didn’t directly address the specifics of the charges to reporters, but when asked why he received unemployment benefits while employed, Santos cited a job change and confusion during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Santos, sporting his usual crewneck sweater, blazer and khakis, said little during the arraignment, which lasted about 15 minutes. Reporters spilled from the gallery to the jury box, joined by a handful of constituents.
“He should be thrown out of Congress and put in prison,” declared Jeff Herzberg, a Long Island resident who spent hours waiting to see Santos' arraignment. “I hope that day comes soon.”
Santos 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 said employed him, didn't go to college and struggled financially before entering politics. 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 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.
Santos' legal troubles date to his late teens, when he was investigated in Brazil for allegedly using stolen checks to buy clothes — a case that authorities say they've since reopened the case.
In 2017, Santos was charged with theft in Pennsylvania for allegedly using thousands of dollars in bogus checks to buy puppies from breeders. That case was dismissed after Santos claimed his checkbook was stolen and someone else took the dogs.
Federal authorities have separately been looking into complaints about Santos' fundraising for a group that purported to help abused pets. A New Jersey veteran accused Santos of failing to deliver $3,000 he raised to help his dog get needed surgery.
Associated Press writers Seung Min Kim in White Plains, New York, Farnoush Amiri in Washington and Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed to this report.
Follow the AP's coverage of U.S. Rep. George Santos at https://apnews.com/hub/george-santos.
Jake Offenhartz And Michael R. Sisak, The Associated Press