George Santos faces growing legal scrutiny: ‘He needs his lawyer on speed dial’
NEW YORK — An unrepentant Rep.-elect George Santos, who remains on track to be sworn in next week, faced growing legal scrutiny in recent days, as his web of known falsehoods expanded to include a misleading claim that his mother died on 9/11.
Over two days, the state attorney general’s office, the Nassau County district attorney’s office and the Queens district attorney’s office all signaled that they had set Santos in their sights.
Perhaps most alarmingly for the incoming congressman, federal prosecutors have started to comb through his public filings, ABC News reported. Santos appears to have swiftly built personal wealth despite a history of debt and financial troubles.
“Once the U.S. attorney gets involved, that is the dominant player,” said Linda Lacewell, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, adding that Santos could have a “big problem.”
Santos, a 34-year-old Republican, admitted this week to misrepresenting areas of his biography including his education, professional experience and property ownership, after The New York Times published a bombshell report last week examining holes in his resume.
Seemingly each day has brought the discovery of fresh falsehoods from Santos. On Thursday, news reports surfaced an old tweet in which he said 9/11 “claimed” his mother’s life. She died in 2016, according to another tweet by Santos and an obituary.
“He has made himself a giant target by uttering all these admitted lies about his background that have caused the eyes of the world — and most importantly the eyes of law enforcement — to focus on him,” Lacewell said. “He needs his lawyer on speed dial.”
Santos has downplayed the gravity of the fabrications, and has given no indication that he might step aside. He is set to be sworn in next Tuesday as the new representative for New York’s 3rd Congressional District, which stretches from eastern Queens out into the suburbs.
“I’m not a criminal,” Santos told WABC-AM on Monday. “Not here, not abroad, in any jurisdiction in the world, have I ever committed any crimes. And I’m more than happy to corroborate that.”
“I’m not a fraud,” Santos said.
Prosecutors at multiple levels are checking.
The district attorney in Nassau County, Anne Donelly, declared in a Wednesday statement that the “fabrications and inconsistencies associated with Congressman-elect Santos are nothing short of stunning.”
“The residents of Nassau County and other parts of the 3rd District must have an honest and accountable representative in Congress,” Donelly, a Republican, said in the statement. Her office said that it was investigating.
A spokeswoman for state Attorney General Letitia James said Thursday that her office was “looking into” Santos. The office had opened an inquiry but not a formal investigation, said the spokeswoman, Delaney Kempner.
And Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz’s office said Thursday that it, too, is examining the matter. “While as a matter of course we do not comment on open investigations, we are reviewing whether Queens County has jurisdiction over any potential criminal offenses,” the office said in a statement.
At the Nassau County Courthouse in Mineola, demonstrators demanded Thursday morning that Santos not be seated, and urged aggressive investigations. Robert Zimmerman, the Democrat who lost to Santos, spoke at that rally.
“This is much bigger than politics,” Zimmerman said by phone on Thursday afternoon. “This is about demanding accountability and protecting our democracy.”
“This is an unprecedented coalition stepping up to an unprecedented scandal,” he added.
Still, many Republican leaders have stayed mum. It was unclear how likely the scandal was to escalate from a political transgression into a criminal case.
Experts said falsified campaign filings could be the likeliest source of charges, and that the level of legal peril facing Santos would hinge on the sweep of his fabrications.
“If these made their way into campaign filings, there may well be enough to prosecute,” said Mark Peters, who once led the state attorney general office’s public integrity unit and later served as commissioner of the city Department of Investigation.
Federal areas of concern could also include a reported $700,000 loaned by Santos to his campaign, said Nathan Reilly, a former chief of the public integrity division in the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn.
“Are there any campaign finance-related issues and campaign disclosure issues, on one hand?” Reilly said. “And then the second issue is: I think there will be questions around what the source of funds were.”
Santos’ campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Outside of the handful of published interviews he has taken part in this week — including a lashing he received from former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on Fox News — he has kept a relatively low profile.
On Wednesday, he said he had toured the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, L.I. “In Congress, I look forward to working alongside them to fully utilize this amazing resource we have in our own backyard,” he tweeted.
Lacewell said Santos might face another pitfall if the federal probe advances to a point where investigators wish to interview him.
“Is he capable of telling the truth?” she said. “If he lies over the course of a federal investigation about a material matter and it’s deliberate, that could be a separate offense even if they can never prove anything else.”