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NEW YORK — When Long Island Republicans organized in 2021 to take back the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office after 16 years of Democratic control, no one expected the first blockbuster case to be against a sitting member of the party.
Yet here we are.
Anne Donnelly officially became the county's top prosecutor just over a year ago, propelled by a campaign focused on state bail laws and funded almost single-handedly by the county Republican Party. She is a 32-year veteran of the DA’s office who has conducted wide-ranging investigations against gangs and white-collar criminals. And last month, she pledged in strikingly strong terms to train her expertise on newly elected Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.).
That pronouncement launched her from relative obscurity into national headlines. And going forward, her prosecutorial experience, the desire of fellow Republicans to rid themselves of Santos and the unique powers of the district attorney’s office put her in a prime position to pounce on the fact-challenged lawmaker.
“This fell into her lap. It’s in her backyard. I think she is more than capable of handling it, and she has the will of the people to do something,” said Vito Palmieri, a Long Island attorney who worked in the Nassau County DA’s office in the 1990s. “That the party wants him gone and she is a Republican doing her job — let’s put it this way — I don’t think that hurts her at all.”
Despite the hue and cry of Democrats, perhaps no one wants Santos out of office more than the Republicans of Nassau County, a leafy suburb abutting New York City that is home to 1.4 million people, many of whom commute into Manhattan.
“He needs help,” Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said about Santos at a recent press conference. “This is not a normal person.”
Blakeman was speaking at an extraordinary event convened by the Nassau County Republican Committee earlier this month, where more than a dozen GOP officials took turns excoriating the freshman lawmaker over lies about everything from his family history (not Jewish) to his education (he did not attend Baruch College, let alone play on its volleyball team).
They had ample reason to fret. Fresh off huge midterm gains there and elsewhere on Long Island, the party will be heading into a tough election season in 2024 with President Joe Biden atop the ticket. With sky-high unfavorability ratings and zero support from fellow party members, Santos will have a tough time clinging to his seat — as evidenced by Democrats and Republicans already drawing up short lists of who might replace him — and could hurt fellow GOP candidates by association.
Rightward shift on Long Island
The midterm red wave that washed over New York City suburbs began building in 2021.
In May that year, the sitting Nassau County DA, a Democrat, was appointed to a judgeship on the state’s highest court, triggering a special election for her successor. As each party scrambled for a candidate, John Wighaus, president of the Nassau County Detectives' Association, later recalled to Newsday how he introduced Donnelly to the head of the Nassau County GOP.
The then 56-year-old had close to zero political experience. Donnelly had never made a political contribution before 2021, though state campaign finance records show her husband has been a periodic donor to Republican causes.
Her status as a political neophyte was reflected in her campaign ads, where she never addressed the camera. Instead, third parties appeared on-screen to attack her opponent, Democratic state Sen. Todd Kaminsky. Those surrogates included the detectives’ association leader and victims of violent crime, who starred in several spots leading up to the November election.
Donnelly, whose office declined to make her available for an interview, had other professional advantages. She spent her career in the DA’s office working under both Republicans and Democrats, first joining as an assistant district attorney in the District Court Bureau and serving most recently as deputy chief of the Organized Crime and Rackets Bureau.
In the end, few of those details seemed to matter as the race became a proxy for recently changed bail laws in New York state that have drawn Republican criticism and opened a rift within the Democratic Party.
Her run was fueled almost entirely by the local party apparatus. Out of the $1.3 million she raised, nearly $1 million came from the Nassau County GOP, according to state campaign finance records. That cash infusion, along with the relentless focus on bail, propelled her to a resounding 20-point victory over Kaminsky.
And now, as Republicans are hoping to be rid of Santos, she has indicated an eagerness to investigate.
"The numerous fabrications and inconsistencies associated with Congressman-Elect Santos are nothing short of stunning,” she said in a statement in late December, weeks before the county party would reduce their relationship with Santos to cinders. “The residents of Nassau County and other parts of the third district must have an honest and accountable representative in Congress. No one is above the law and if a crime was committed in this county, we will prosecute it."
That led Joseph Murray, Santos’ attorney, to question whether Donnelly had come under pressure from the Nassau County GOP or protesters calling for an inquiry. Murray said he had supported Donnelly’s run for office in 2021, heartened by her apolitical history, but was disappointed to see the Dec. 28 statement coming from such a seasoned litigator.
“There’s no way a prosecutor of 32 years is going to telegraph an investigation like that to the whole world,” Murray said in an interview. “From a prosecutor’s perspective — not as [Santos’] lawyer — why would you do that?”
Murary declined to discuss any of the allegations against Santos.
The road ahead
Donnelly’s forceful statement stood in stark contrast to federal prosecutors, who declined to comment on a CBS News story that broke news of their probe, and the New York state attorney general, who said she was looking into allegations against Santos.
While each of those law enforcment offices has its own jurisdiction, there appear to be a few legal avenues for Donnelly to explore.
“They are a very solid office, and they are able to do complex cases,” Howard Master, a managing director at investigation firm Nardello & Co. who has worked for both state and federal prosecutors, said of the Nassau DA. “Essentially the difference is: Their jurisdiction includes state crimes which the federal government cannot prosecute.”
Charges related to lying on formal documents or falsifying business records, for example, might serve as a guidepost if Donnelly were to look at Santos’ involvement withan investment fund currently in the crosshairs of the Securities and Exchange Commission. While Santos worked for the company, Harbor City Capital, he was not named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit filed by the SEC.
District attorneys can often be quicker when it comes to mounting investigations compared to their federal counterparts. But in probes involving major figures like elected officials, state prosecutors often take their time to ensure cases are airtight. And it is likely Donnelly’s office is coordinating with the feds, who enjoy several advantages of their own when it comes to gathering testimony and evidence.
“It’s common for state and federal prosecutors who are looking at the same subject to work collaboratively with each other to avoid duplication of efforts in obtaining information from witnesses and other sources of information,” Master said, “and to ensure that the appropriate charges are brought in whichever jurisdiction is best suited to hear [them].”
While Donnelly pledged to uncover any breach of state law, Santos’ fabrications provide much more grist for the feds to bite into: He filed a financial disclosure with the House and submitted campaign finance records to the Federal Election Commission, both actions that fall squarely within the purview of prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York.
Santos’ campaign finance disclosures with the FEC, for example, contain dozens of expenses that fall just cents short of a threshold that would have required him to preserve documentation of those purchases. And he provided dramatically different information on financial disclosure forms filed during his first run for Congress and his successful campaign last year.
“There are blinking red lights related to the comparison between his financial disclosure in 2020 and the entire campaign finance process, including his financial disclosure in 2022,” Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.), who has penned both an ethics complaint against Santos and a bill mandating more disclosure from candidates alongside his colleague Rep. Ritchie Torres, said in an interview.
Thus far, no one has released information even hinting an indictment against Santos is imminent. And, according to Goldman — a former federal prosecutor who has been tapped for the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability — the various probes could ultimately lead somewhere unexpected.
“Investigations are rarely ends-oriented,” he said. “It’s much more often you are investigating one thing, you dig into bank records and then start to see a totally different picture.”
An attorney and a spokesperson for Santos did not return messages.