CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CN) — U.S. Representative George Santos surrendered to authorities and pleaded not guilty Wednesday afternoon to 13 criminal counts, including wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and lying to Congress.
In court, Santos wore his signature dark framed glasses, with a navy blazer and sweater over a white dress shirt. Sitting and sometimes chatting with his attorney, his face remained mostly expressionless. He answered, “yes, ma’am,” to the questions he faced from U.S. Magistrate Judge Anne Shields, rather than using the customary, “your honor.”
Unsealed in the Eastern District of New York, the federal indictment say Santos, 34, embezzled money from his supporters in the 2020 election, directing an unnamed political consultant to tell donors their dollars would go to television campaign ads and other efforts to get Santos elected. Prosecutors say Santos instead used the money to buy designer clothing, pay off personal debts and withdraw cash.
People running for Congress must disclose all assets, income and liabilities, but Santos, according to the indictment, filed multiple false reports about his financial status, at times both overstating his income and failing to report money he made as regional director of a Florida-based investment firm.
Santos is also accused of stealing $24,000 in unemployment insurance benefits during the pandemic, claiming to be out of work from March 2020 through April 2021 when in fact he was earning a $120,000 salary.
The government did not seek to detain Santos, who was released on a $500,000 bond after entering his plea. Santos surrendered his passport and may not travel outside of New York City, Long Island and Washington, or travel points in between those locations, without notifying the government.
"Don't assume something is OK," Judge Shields warned. "You've got to ask before you do anything."
Joe Murray, Santos' attorney, noted that Santos has announced his run for reelection and would like to be able to travel to campaign and fundraise. The congressional district Santos represents in Congress covers northwestern Queens and the northern half of Long Island’s Nassau County.
None of the three sureties who helped Santos post bond were in court with him Wednesday.
Exiting into the Central Islip springtime weather that afternoon, Santos called the charges a "witch hunt" but said he will follow the legal process and defend himself in court.
"I have no desire not to comply at this point," Santos told reporters. "I'm going to fight my battle, I'm going to deliver, I'm going to fight the witch hunt. I'm going to take care of clearing my name, and I look forward to doing that."
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Breon Peace said the indictment speaks to Santos’ “various alleged fraudulent schemes and brazen misrepresentations.”
“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,” Peace said in a statement. “He used political contributions to line his pockets, unlawfully applied for unemployment benefits that should have gone to New Yorkers who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and lied to the House of Representatives.”
Santos has clung to office despite a series of news reports in the wake of the election that revealed he had largely invented his educational and personal background.
Among the fabrications to which he has admitted, Santos falsely claimed to have graduated from Baruch College in New York and lied about working at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. He also misrepresented his ancestral and religious background, claiming to be both Jewish and Catholic, and stating that his mother was killed in the September 11, 2001, terror attacks when in fact she died in 2016.
Though he came clean on the flat-out lies about his work and schooling, Santos downplayed other fabrications as a "poor choice of words." He jokingly referred to himself as "Jew-ish," despite previously calling himself an "American Jew" whose grandparents survived the Holocaust.
His lies rose to the level of "Saturday Night Live" parody with actor Bowen Yang playing Santos in a "Weekend Update" interview in January.
Santos faced calls for his resignation from Democrats and Republicans alike, but his only move was to step down from committee appointments. In April Santos announced that he plans to run for office again in 2024.
Representatives for Santos did not immediately respond to a request for comment when news of his still-sealed indictment broke early Tuesday evening.
The top count of the indictment against Santos, wire fraud, carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Santos' next court appearance was set for the end of June.Follow @NinaPullano
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