George Santos funneled $25,000 to Lee Zeldin’s campaign for governor — then reimbursed himself, review shows

NEW YORK — New York Congressman-elect George Santos, who’s set to take office Tuesday despite being caught in a series of lies about his background, used creative campaign finance moves that had his supporters effectively bankroll a $25,000 contribution he funneled to Lee Zeldin’s Republican gubernatorial bid.

According to a Daily News review of federal and state records, Santos made a $25,000 loan in the summer of 2021 to his political action committee, which then made the donation to Zeldin. Months later, Santos reimbursed himself for the loan, once the PAC was flush with money from donors to his own congressional campaign.

There’s no indication that the soon-to-be Republican Long Island congressman’s cash shuffle is illegal. But veteran campaign finance expert Robert Maguire said he has never seen anything like it.

“As with everything with Santos, while maybe not illegal, it’s extremely strange and leaves you scratching your head and wondering, ‘What’s going on here?’” said Maguire, the research director at nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Santos, who’s already facing multiple investigations and bipartisan criticism for admitting last month that he lied to voters about his family, education and work history before being elected in November, made the unusual donation to Zeldin by first issuing a $25,000 personal loan to GADS PAC on July 10, 2021, Federal Election Commission records show.

The very next day, GADS PAC — which is controlled by Santos and named after his full initials — contributed $25,000 to Zeldin’s ultimately unsuccessful GOP campaign for New York governor, according to state Board of Elections records.

Before receiving Santos’ loan, GADS PAC could not have covered the donation as it had less than $5,000 in its account, FEC records show.

Nine months later, the PAC moved to reimburse Santos in full for the loan, starting with a $3,000 payment on April 10, 2022, according to federal records. Over the subsequent two months, the PAC reimbursed the rest of the loan in three separate installments to Santos, the records show.

Unlike the summer of 2021, by the time of the reimbursement payments, the PAC had raked in plenty of cash from individual donors, most of it transferred from Santos’ main congressional fundraising arm.

Maguire said that means — in effect — the tab for the PAC’s Zeldin donation ended up being covered by Santos’ campaign donors. It’s not uncommon for one candidate to support another, but the reimbursed loan adds an unusual dimension to this episode.

“The simplest explanation appears to be that he wanted credit for the donation, but he didn’t want to take the financial hit,” Maguire said of Santos. “It’s an instance of him trying to have his cake and eat it too.”

Santos, who’s set to be sworn in Tuesday as the new representative for New York’s Third Congressional District, did not return multiple requests for comment via a spokesman Monday. Nancy Marks, who’s listed in federal records as the GADS PAC’s treasurer, also did not return a request for comment.

Zeldin, who’s leaving Congress this week after representing Long Island’s 1st Congressional District for eight years, could not be reached for comment.

The GADS PAC was established in December 2020, a month after Santos lost to Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi in that year’s election for the 3rd District, which covers a slice of eastern Queens in addition to parts of Nassau and Suffolk Counties.

Adding another wrinkle to the unusual nature of GADS is the fact that it’s a so-called Leadership PAC.

“Santos being someone who hasn’t actually held federal office, it’s strange that he has a Leadership PAC at all,” Maguire said, noting that such committees are generally only used by senior members of Congress, such as minority and majority leaders, to support colleagues in their conferences.

It’s also almost unheard of for federal candidates to issue loans to their Leadership PACs, Maguire said. “Candidates often lend their campaigns money ... but not their leadership PACs,” he said.

The revelations about GADS PAC come as Santos is about to take office against a backdrop of scandal.

The New York Times first reported on Dec. 19 that Santos falsely claimed on the campaign trail that he is Jewish; worked for Citibank and Goldman Sachs; graduated from Barcuh College, and owned property, among other lies. The Times also reported he was once arrested for fraud in Brazil, and since then more questions have emerged about how he funded his campaign and used donor money.

Santos admitted to most of those lies in a string of interviews last month, though he has maintained he never “committed any crimes.”

Still, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, state Attorney General Letitia James and Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly, a fellow Republican, are said to be investigating Santos over his falsehoods. Meantime, some of Santos’ soon-to-be colleagues — including fellow Long Island Republican Rep. Nick LaLota — have called for a House Ethics Committee probe.

“New Yorkers deserve the truth and House Republicans deserve an opportunity to govern without this distraction,” LaLota said last month.