Embattled US Rep George Santos hit with fraud, money laundering charges
By Karen Freifeld and Sarah N. Lynch
CENTRAL ISLIP, New York (Reuters) - U.S. Representative George Santos on Wednesday vowed to fight charges of fraud, money laundering and theft of public funds in the latest hit to the newly elected Republican, who has resisted calls to resign for lying about his resume.
"It's a witch hunt," Santos said shortly after appearing in court in Central Islip, New York, to face the federal charges, echoing a claim often voiced by former President Donald Trump. "I'm going to fight my battle. I'm going to deliver. I'm going to fight the witch hunt. I am going to take care of clearing my name, and I look forward to doing that."
A 13-count indictment charged Santos, 34, with defrauding prospective political supporters by laundering funds to pay for his personal expenses and illegally receiving unemployment benefits while he was employed.
It also accuses him of making false statements to the House of Representatives about his assets, income and liabilities.
Top House Republicans, who control the chamber by a narrow 222-213 margin, said they would wait for the legal process to play out before taking further action on Santos, who pleaded not guilty.
U.S House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he would not support Santos' re-election, CNN reported later on Wednesday.
"Santos has a lot going on. I think he has other things to focus on in his life other than running for re-election," he was quoted as saying.
Santos was released on a $500,000 bond and is due back in court for his next appearance on June 30. This means he can go back to Washington and cast votes in Congress. As a condition of his release, he agreed to surrender his passport and to limit his travel.
Federal prosecutors said they had evidence of a sweeping pattern of fraudulent behavior.
"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," Breon Peace, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement.
CALLS TO RESIGN
Nine House Republicans have so far called on Santos to resign, including six from his home state of New York. But No. 2 House Republican Steve Scalise said the caucus would withhold judgment on Santos.
"In America, there's a presumption of innocence, but they're serious charges. He's going to have to go through the legal process," Scalise told a press conference.
Santos said he had no intention of resigning and would run for re-election in 2024.
Shortly after Santos' election in 2022 to represent a wealthy area of New York's Long Island, the New York Times and other media outlets revealed that he had fabricated almost every aspect of his personal and professional history.
Among other claims, Santos said he had degrees from New York University and Baruch College despite neither institution's having any record of his attending. He claimed to have worked at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, which also was untrue.
He said falsely that he was Jewish and that his grandparents escaped the Nazis during World War Two. Santos, who identifies as gay, also failed to disclose that he was married to a woman for several years ending in 2019.
He has since admitted to fabricating large parts of his resume.
The House Ethics Committee in March launched an investigation to look at issues from alleged illegal activity over Santos' 2022 campaign and failing to properly disclose information required on House statements to violations of federal conflict-of-interest laws.
Some of the allegations in the indictment track closely with the claims being investigated by the House panel.
In the political campaign scheme, prosecutors said Santos laundered donations into his own personal bank accounts and used thousands of dollars to pay for personal expenses, from luxury clothing to credit card payments.
He also is accused of repeatedly making false statements about his income in forms he filed with the House.
In a third alleged scheme, the indictment says Santos illegally filed for unemployment benefits at the height of the pandemic, reaping more than $24,000 at a time when he was earning a $120,00 salary - a claim Santos called "inaccurate."
(Reporting by Karen Freifeld in Central Islip, New York, and Sarah N. Lynch in Washington; Additional reporting by Moira Warburton, David Morgan and Rami Ayyub in Washington and Costas Pitas in Los Angeles; Editing by Scott Malone, Alistair Bell and Lisa Shumaker)