How George Santos Used Political Connections to Fuel Get-Rich Schemes

About a year before George Santos was elected to Congress, he and three other men approached a loyal campaign donor with a potentially lucrative opportunity.

A wealthy Polish citizen wanted to buy cryptocurrency, they said, but for reasons unclear, his fortune was frozen in a bank account. They asked the donor, a wealthy investor in his own right, for help.

The donor was immediately skeptical. He was not told the Polish citizen’s name. The men’s plan — having the donor create a limited liability company to gain access to the funds — made no sense to him.

And while they hadn’t yet asked for money, he was struck by how much their pitch resembled the classic Nigerian prince email scheme, in which a rich, potentially fictitious, foreigner asks an outsider to help free up frozen assets.

In the years since Mr. Santos first ran for the House in 2020, he has become adept at finding ways to extract money from politics. He founded a political consulting group that he marketed to other Republicans. He sought to profit from the Covid crisis, using campaign connections. And he solicited investments for and from political donors, raising ethical questions.

Mr. Santos has been charged with 13 felonies for misrepresenting his earnings, collecting $24,000 in unemployment while employed, and pocketing $50,000 he solicited from political supporters through what he claimed was a super PAC.

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Mr. Santos, who has pleaded not guilty, has not been charged with personal use of campaign funds. But a review of his political career found several previously unreported examples of how he sought to use the connections he made as a candidate for public office to enrich himself.

The proposition involving the wealthy Polish national is a prime example, as Mr. Santos partnered with a former Republican state assemblyman, Michael LiPetri; and Bryant Park Associates, a company run by a Republican donor, Dominick Sartorio, according to the investor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said his business interests would be harmed if he was publicly associated with Mr. Santos.

The interaction was so strange that the donor said he was uncertain if Mr. Santos and his partners were themselves being conned. He asked for more information, but was told to first sign a nondisclosure agreement. Three of their names appeared on the agreement, which was reviewed by The Times. When the investor asked for changes to the nondisclosure form, the talks ended.

Mr. LiPetri, now a lobbyist at the firm Park Strategies, sought to minimize his role in the venture, saying that while he was aware of Mr. Santos’s efforts, he was not involved “in detail,” and suggested that no deals ultimately materialized.

The congressman’s lawyer, Joseph Murray, said that Mr. LiPetri had connected Mr. Santos to Bryant Park Associates, which represented the Polish citizen. “Mr. Santos only made the introductions. End of story,” Mr. Murray said, adding that he had “no information” about the Polish man’s identity.

In one of his propositions, Mr. Santos had partnered with others, including a former Republican state assemblyman, Michael LiPetri, left, according to an investor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.Credit…Howard Schnapp/Newsday

Mr. Sartorio, a businessman whose ventures repeatedly forced him into bankruptcy, did not return repeated requests for comment.

Mr. Santos’s actions have been scrutinized ever since The Times revealed last year that the high-powered finance career and fabulous wealth he bragged about on the campaign trail were fictional.

But sometime between his first ill-fated congressional run and the present, Mr. Santos’s grandiose stories began to come to life. He started driving a Mercedes and wearing Cartier, and made large loans to his campaign. Mr. Santos has claimed that his company, the Devolder Organization, paid him $750,000 a year, plus dividends of more than a million dollars. Prosecutors have called those numbers inflated.

Mr. Santos has consistently rejected allegations of impropriety.

“I had the relationships and I started making a lot of money, I fundamentally started building wealth,” he told City and State in December, several months before his indictment. “And I decided to invest in my race for Congress. There’s nothing wrong with that — no criminal conduct, no anything of the sort.”

One of the earliest, previously unreported instances of Mr. Santos blurring his political and business interests came in July 2020, against the backdrop of Covid-driven shortages of personal protection equipment, and just six months into his first and unsuccessful bid for a House seat.

A campaign contact connected Mr. Santos to Blue Flame Medical, a new company run by Michael Gula, a Republican fund-raiser from Washington, D.C., and a California-based political consultant, John Thomas. The pair had recently pivoted from politics into procurement, recognizing the tremendous market for testing kits, masks and ventilators.

Blue Flame, which claimed to have access to supplies from a partner company owned by the Chinese government, soon ran into troubles of its own, after several clients said they had not received the materials promised. Blue Flame was investigated by federal authorities, but no charges were ever brought.

A referral agreement obtained by The Times shows that Mr. Santos was signed on as a consultant with the potential to receive 10 percent of any deal he brought in.

Mr. Santos separated from the company shortly afterward without arranging any deals, he said through his lawyer. Blue Flame had no comment.

Nearly a year later, Mr. Santos was again looking for business opportunities after his employer, Harbor City Capital, a Florida-based investment firm, was shut down amid accusations from the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was operating as a Ponzi scheme.

Mr. Santos opened a political consulting firm with his campaign treasurer, Nancy Marks, and some Harbor City colleagues. Called Red Strategies USA, it aimed to be a one-stop shop for Republican candidates and would handle everything from bookkeeping to ad production.

Mr. Santos and his longtime campaign treasurer, Nancy Marks, started Red Strategies USA, a political consulting firm that sought to represent Republican candidates.Credit…James Carbone/Newsday

One of its first clients was Tina Forte, a far-right firebrand who had developed an online following after criticizing coronavirus mandates. Mr. Santos encouraged her to run against Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who represents part of the Bronx and Queens, according to Ms. Forte’s former campaign manager, Jen Remauro.

Mr. Santos told Ms. Forte that he knew of a great political consulting firm, Ms. Remauro recalled, and steered her to Red Strategies — failing to note that he was an owner of the company, as reported by The Daily Beast.

In a video call between Red Strategies and Ms. Forte, Mr. Santos acted as though he was purely an intermediary who had never before met his business partners at Red Strategies, Ms. Remauro said.

“George introduced himself to them and he was like, ‘pleased to meet you, blah, blah, blah,’” Ms. Remauro said. “Meanwhile, fast forward, they all worked at that company that went under!” she added, referring to Harbor City.

Over the next few months, Ms. Remauro said she grew suspicious of some of Red Strategies’s practices.

Despite numerous requests to Ms. Marks, Ms. Forte was not able to get copies of monthly account or bank statements, Ms. Remauro wrote in one email, and her own paychecks were several months late.

Even more troubling, Ms. Remauro said, was the unusual way that Red Strategies appeared to be paying itself.

Under the terms of the company’s agreement with Ms. Forte, Red Strategies was entitled to keep 80 percent of whatever it raised on her behalf, according to campaign documents reviewed by The Times. But Red Strategies obscured its earnings through inflated expenditures to other vendors.

In its July 2021 quarterly filing, the Forte campaign reported raising $42,000 — an amount nearly nullified in a solitary $35,000 payment for “credit card fees” to WinRed, a fund-raising platform favored by conservatives.

But that made little sense to Ms. Remauro, who knew that WinRed typically charges clients closer to 4 percent of their fund-raising haul. Indeed, Ms. Forte would have needed to raise 20 times more than she had to merit a $35,000 processing fee.

The next filing showed the same pattern: $51,000 in “credit card fees” to WinRed, even though Ms. Forte only raised $86,000.

Ms. Forte, who is once again running for Congress, declined to comment.

After Ms. Remauro complained in October 2021 emails to Red Strategies, the company’s filings were amended: In six months, WinRed had collected $6,200 in fees; Red Strategies took home more than $100,000.

It would not be the only time that Mr. Santos has been tied to discrepancies in WinRed fees.

Mr. Santos’s own campaign reported raising $796,238.26 using the WinRed platform, which ought to have resulted in roughly $33,000 in fees, according to a Times analysis. But Mr. Santos’s filings show he paid more than $200,000 — a seeming overpayment of $173,000.

Mr. Murray said that Ms. Marks was to blame for the irregularities in Mr. Santos’s and Ms. Forte’s campaigns, adding that Mr. Santos was “unaware of her negligence and, in hindsight, regrets having worked, hired and partnered with Ms. Marks in every capacity.”

Neither Ms. Marks nor WinRed officials returned a request seeking comment.

Red Strategies was dissolved in September 2022 for failing to file an annual report. By then Mr. Santos had moved on to another venture — coordinating the sale of a 141-foot yacht between two of his political donors, Mayra Ruiz and Raymond Tantillo. Mr. Santos, in an interview with Semafor in December, said that he made his money by bringing interested parties together.

Although Mr. Santos has declined to comment on his involvement in the yacht sale, his lawyer on Tuesday asserted for the first time that Mr. Santos “did not act as a broker for this or any transaction.”

Yet in the Semafor interview, Mr. Santos specifically mentioned a hypothetical yacht sale. “If you’re looking at a $20 million yacht, my referral fee there can be anywhere between $200,000 and $400,000,” he said. The sale of the 141-foot yacht closed in the final weeks of his winning congressional campaign.

Representative George Santos brokered the sale of a 141-foot yacht, now called Neverland, between two of his political donors. Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

It was around then that prosecutors said he approached Mr. Tantillo and another large donor, Andrew Intrater, with yet another opportunity.

Mr. Santos said he was raising money for a last-minute advertising blitz. But unlike previous solicitations for his campaign, this one was free of federal contribution limits because it went through a nonprofit called RedStone Strategies.

Mr. Tantillo and Mr. Intrater agreed to contribute $25,000 each. But prosecutors say that rather than using the money for ads, Mr. Santos spent it on credit card payments and designer clothes.

Reporting was contributed by Alexandra Berzon, Nicholas Fandos, Ken Bensinger and Michael Gold. Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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