Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Santos' Lies Were Known to Some Well-Connected Republicans

Santos' Lies Were Known to Some Well-Connected Republicans

In late 2021, as he prepared to make a second run for a suburban New York City House seat, George Santos gave permission for his campaign to commission a routine background study on him.
Campaigns frequently rely on this kind of research, known as vulnerability studies, to identify anything problematic that an opponent might seize on. But when the report came back on Santos, the findings by a Washington research firm were far more startling, suggesting a pattern of deception that cut to the heart of the image he had cultivated as a wealthy financier.

Some of Santos’ own vendors were so alarmed after seeing the study in late November 2021 that they urged him to drop out of the race and warned that he could risk public humiliation by continuing. When Santos disputed key findings and vowed to continue running, members of the campaign team quit, according to three of the four people The New York Times spoke to with knowledge of the study.

The episode, which has not been previously reported, is the most explicit evidence to date that a small circle of well-connected Republican campaign professionals had indications far earlier than the public that Santos was spinning an elaborate web of deceits and that the candidate himself had been warned about just how vulnerable those lies were to unraveling.

Fraudulent academic degrees. Involvement in a firm accused of a Ponzi scheme. Multiple evictions and a suspended driver’s license. All of it was in the report, which also said that Santos, who is openly gay, had been married to a woman. The report did not offer conclusive details, but some people briefed on the findings wondered whether the marriage was done for immigration purposes.

It remains unclear who else, if anyone, learned about the background study’s contents at the time or if the information made its way to party leaders in New York or Washington. Santos, 34, managed to keep almost all of it from the public until after he was elected, when an investigation by the Times independently unearthed the problematic claims documented by researchers and others that they missed.

After the Times sent a detailed list of questions for this story, a lawyer for Santos, Joe Murray, said, “It would be inappropriate to respond due to ongoing investigations.” A spokesperson for Santos’ congressional office did not respond to a similar request for comment.

Santos himself has admitted to some fabrications but insists he was merely embellishing his qualifications. He has vowed to serve out a two-year term in Congress. State, local and federal prosecutors are now investigating his activity.

The existence of the vulnerability study underscores one of the most vexing questions still surrounding the strange saga of Santos: How did the gatekeeping system of American politics — Republican leaders, adversarial Democrats and the prying media — allow a fabulist who boasted about phantom mansions and a fake resume get away with his con for so long?

Interviews with more than two dozen associates, adversaries and donors, as well as contemporaneous communications and other documents reviewed by the Times, show that Santos inspired no shortage of suspicion during his 2022 campaign, including in the upper echelons of his own party.

Well-connected supporters suspected him of lying and demanded to see his resume. Another former campaign vendor warned a state party official about what he believed were questionable business practices. And the head of the main House Republican super political action committee told some lawmakers and donors that he believed Santos’ story did not add up.

But in each case, rather than denounce Santos publicly, the Republicans looked the other way. They neglected to get the attention of more powerful leaders or to piece together shards of doubt about him and allowed him to run unopposed in the 2022 primary. Some assumed that Santos’ falsehoods were garden-variety political embellishments; others thought Democrats would do their dirty work for them, and Santos would be exposed in the heat of a general election campaign.

But Democrats struggled to do so. In 2020, the party incumbent, Tom Suozzi, dismissed Santos as a nonviable threat and conducted no opposition research at all while cruising to victory. When Democrats did vet him two years later, they failed to find some of the most egregious fabrications that prompted members of Santos’ campaign team to quit.

Democrats then labored unsuccessfully to convince the news media, which had been weakened by years of staff cuts and consumed by higher-profile races, to dig into the troubling leads they did unearth. Aside from The North Shore Leader — a small weekly newspaper on Long Island, which labeled Santos “a fake” — and a few opinion pieces in Newsday, New York’s media machine paid Santos scant attention.

“The reality is, there’s no defense. It shouldn’t have happened,” said Gerard Kassar, the chair of the New York Conservative Party, a small but influential partner to the Republican Party that backed Santos. “It would be impossible and probably incorrect for me to say this could never happen again, but it won’t be from me not looking again.”

Early Warning Signs Missed

Santos was a political neophyte when he first showed interest in running for a House seat made up of parts of Queens and Nassau County in 2020. His only real electoral experience ended quickly: A year earlier, he was forced to drop his insurgent campaign for a low-level party position in Queens because he lacked enough valid signatures to make the ballot, according to Joann Ariola, a New York City Council member who led the Queens Republican Party at the time.

Among the tight-knit Republican circles on Long Island, he was virtually unknown. And in Queens, party leaders were still sour over his initial foray.

In normal circumstances, Santos would have been shooed away. Republicans in Nassau County, which comprises the bulk of New York’s 3rd Congressional District, have long been famous for exercising tight control over who runs, grooming and rewarding a stable of candidates like an old-school political machine.

But with the country in lockdown in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic and the district expected to remain under Democratic control, no one else put their hand up to run. Santos submitted a resume and answered a vetting questionnaire riddled with lies, including that he had a 3.9 grade-point average from a college he never graduated from and job credentials he did not possess. A vetting team for the county Republican Party accepted his answers without question.

“I guess unfortunately, we rely on the person to be truthful to us,” Joseph Cairo Jr., the Republican Party county chair, said in an interview. This week, he called on Santos to resign and said he would no longer be welcome in the Nassau Republican Party.

When Santos chose to run again two years later, local Republicans again gave him their support. They expected that flipping the district would once again be a stretch, and in any case, Cairo’s priority was winning state and local offices, which control thousands of local jobs and major tax and spending decisions. Efforts to recruit a more formidable candidate, like state Sen. Jack Martins, did not pan out.

There were already questions swirling by that time among donors and political figures about where exactly Santos lived and the source of the money that supported the lavish lifestyle he boasted about.

In summer 2021, one of the former advisers to Santos, who insisted on anonymity, discovered his connections to Harbor City Capital, the Florida-based firm accused of a Ponzi scheme, and to other suspicious business practices that Santos had obscured. The adviser said he took the findings to a state party official later that fall and tried to pitch the story to a newspaper, which he said did not pursue it. The Harbor City connection was later reported in The Daily Beast.

Around that time, Santos began attracting the suspicion of a pair of friends and potential donors active in New York Republican circles. Santos claimed to one of them, Kristin Bianco, to have secured the endorsement of former President Donald Trump when he had not. That prompted her to express concerns about Santos to plugged-in Republicans, including associates of Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, one of Santos’ biggest early backers, whose top political aide was assisting his campaign. Later, Bianco and her friend became suspicious that they could not verify his work history.

“We’re just so tired of being duped,” Bianco texted Santos in early 2022 after he refused her request to produce his resume. Santos wrote back that he found the request “a bit invasive as it’s something very personal.”

In the run-up to the 2022 contest, Dan Conston, a close ally of Speaker Kevin McCarthy who leads the Congressional Leadership Fund, the main House Republican super PAC, also confided in lawmakers, donors and other associates that he was worried information would come out exposing Santos as a fraud, according to two people with knowledge of the conversations who insisted on anonymity to describe them and declined to provide more detail.

In spring 2022, Santos’ race suddenly became competitive after a state court undid a Democratic gerrymander and adopted new congressional boundaries friendlier to Republicans. Despite the prime pickup opportunity, the Congressional Leadership Fund deliberately withheld support from the contest — but never spoke about it publicly. A spokesperson for Conston’s group declined to comment on its campaign strategy or its leaders’ conversations.

If party leaders were aware of any of the concerns about Santos, or others raised by his former vendors, they found ways to reassure themselves.

“The thinking was, the guy went through a campaign with Suozzi, who was a pretty tough and thorough guy,” said Peter King, a retired longtime Republican congressman from Nassau County. “So anything would have come out.”

Opposition Research Misses the Mark

The assumption that any damaging information about Santos would have been found in the 2020 campaign turned out to be misguided.

Suozzi, the popular Democratic incumbent, got a quote for the cost of an outside firm to do opposition research on Santos. But he decided not to spend the money — sparing Santos meaningful scrutiny in his first race.

“No one knew George Santos, and he had less than $50,000 in campaign funds against a popular incumbent who never even said his name,” said Kim Devlin, a Suozzi adviser. “We didn’t feed anything to the press because why would we give him press?”

With a more competitive race expected in 2022, researchers at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did the first meaningful opposition research on Santos that summer, assembling an 87-page opposition research book. It extensively documents Santos’ past statements — including his extreme views on abortion rights and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

Using public records, the committee’s researchers also turned up some red flags in Santos’ biography: multiple evictions; no IRS registration for an animal charity he had claimed to have created; details about his involvement with Harbor City (Santos himself was not named in the Ponzi scheme allegations) and more recent suspicious business dealings; as well as apparent discrepancies in his financial disclosure forms that raised questions about the source of hundreds of thousands of dollars he had lent his campaign.

But with orders to produce similar research books on dozens of other candidates across the country, the committee’s strained research team left stones unturned. At several points, researchers explicitly flagged the need for follow-up inquiries, such as to “determine whether Santos has a criminal record.” And their study failed to turn up key problems that prompted Santos’ own vendors to quit months earlier: his fabricated educational record, his marriage to a woman and questions about his residency.

A spokesperson for the DCCC declined to comment.

Santos’ 2022 opponent, Robert Zimmerman, got hold of the research book in late August, right after he won a competitive and costly Democratic primary. He decided not to spend what would have likely been tens of thousands of dollars to do more rigorous outside research.

Other Democrats have second-guessed that decision in recent weeks, but at the time, Zimmerman had his reasons. While presidential and Senate campaigns typically have the financial and staff resources for exhaustive opposition research, House campaigns tend to rely on the DCCC to conduct their research.

Strapped for time and cash, Zimmerman concluded that his money would be better spent on advertising and canvassing operations. And he believed that the campaign committee’s report as well as Santos’ far-right views on abortion and Jan. 6 — two of the year’s most prominent campaign themes — gave him powerful campaign fodder.

“We knew a lot about him did not add up; we were very conscious of that,” Zimmerman said in an interview. “But we didn’t have the resources as a campaign to do the kind of digging that had to be done.”

Zimmerman said his campaign tried to prod reporters at local and national news outlets with leads about Santos but had little luck. The candidate himself, a public relations executive, did not hold news conferences or use paid advertising to draw attention to known discrepancies in his opponent’s record.

“The response we got back pretty universally was, they just didn’t have the personnel, the time or the money to do it,” Zimmerman said, referring to the publications the campaign contacted. “One person said to me, ‘There are 60 to 80 crazy people running; we can’t investigate them all.’”

One outlet stood out: The North Shore Leader in Long Island, run by a Republican lawyer and former House candidate, Grant Lally. The paper published a pair of articles casting doubt on Santos’ claims that he owned extravagant cars and homes and labeling him a “fabulist — a fake,” though it did not have other specifics that would later come out about his falsified resume or his past.

None of the bigger outlets, including the Times, followed up with extensive stories examining his real address or his campaign’s questionable spending, focusing their coverage instead on Santos’ extreme policy views and the historic nature of a race between two openly gay candidates.

What Did Top Republicans Know?

In the aftermath of Santos’ exposure, Democrats have said that their researchers would likely not have turned up much of the information uncovered by the Times and other media outlets after the election. Private institutions like schools and businesses are more inclined to share educational and employment records with reporters than with political parties, they say.

But the opposition research firm Santos hired in autumn 2021 — his campaign reported spending $16,600 on Capital Research Group LLC — seems to have had relatively little trouble turning up some of that same information.

People working for his campaign had grown accustomed to Santos’ braggadocio and outlandish claims. But when they approached him about conducting a vulnerability study, the objective was more routine: producing a record of his past statements and other public information that would be useful later when his opponents started crafting attacks.

Santos quickly signed off, but as the research dragged on, he asked to cancel the contract with the firm. When the results came back, it was clear why.

Researchers found no evidence that Santos had earned degrees at Baruch College and New York University, as he had claimed. They turned up records showing his involvement with the company accused of a Ponzi scheme — a relationship he had played down. They found eviction records, business records and a suspended Florida driver’s license, which together raised questions about whether he was a legal New York resident and as rich as he claimed to be.

The report also said that Santos, who was openly gay and appeared to be living with a man at the time, had been married to a woman. The study missed other fabrications that the Times later uncovered, including false claims that he worked at Citibank and Goldman Sachs. Nor did it turn up records of fraud charges in Brazil years earlier.

The Times has not seen the vulnerability study, but it was described in recent days by four people with knowledge of the report who were granted anonymity because it remains confidential.

The people working for Santos convened an emergency conference call to discuss the results Dec. 1, 2021. They presented Santos with a choice: bow out of the race with dignity, or stay in and risk letting the Democrats turn up the same information and use it to destroy his political and personal future.

After promising to produce diplomas that would prove his degrees (he ultimately did not), Santos said he would think it over. When he came back a few days later, he said he had spoken with other advisers and was convinced the findings were not as bad as they were being portrayed. He was staying in the race. Most of his team quit.

What top Republicans were told of Santos’ issues is difficult to chart. Santos required those working for his campaign to sign nondisclosure agreements, limiting the spread of the vulnerability report. But one person who was briefed on its contents said that questions about Santos’ background were discussed well beyond campaign vendors. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which closely monitors House candidates and backed Santos, sometimes requests such reports as a condition of its support.

A spokesperson for the group declined to comment for this article but pointed to an earlier statement denying it had previous knowledge that Santos’ record was largely fabricated. The NRCC typically does not conduct its own independent vulnerability studies on candidates.

McCarthy, who ultimately endorsed Santos and helped his campaign, has said relatively little about the fabrications and has refused calls to try to oust him from the House as the speaker seeks to maintain an exceedingly narrow majority in Washington. This week, McCarthy played down Santos’ lies, comparing them to other politicians who have embellished parts of their resumes, and implying he would not undo the will of voters who elected him.

Spokespeople for McCarthy did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story, and a spokesperson for Stefanik, the highest-ranking New York House Republican, declined to comment. Allies of McCarthy maintain that they did not know about the baldest fabrications and misrepresentations, like those turned up by Republican researchers in late 2021, but only had more general concerns about his honesty.

Despite the financial resources he helped marshal to the race, McCarthy had good personal reason to be wary of Santos. Earlier in 2021, an aide to the candidate was caught impersonating McCarthy’s chief of staff while soliciting campaign contributions.

By spring 2022, Santos was in need of a new team of consultants. With help from Stefanik’s top political aide, he chose a new consulting firm and shared the vulnerability study.

The new crop of vendors, led by Big Dog Strategies, never spoke to their predecessors, though, and did not know why they had left the campaign. After Santos again insisted he had graduated from college and addressed other red flags raised in the report, the new team accepted his explanations and began plotting a campaign. They would use issues — not the candidate’s biography — to win the race.

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