The talented Mr. Santos: A congressman-elect’s unraveling web of deception

Photo for The Washington Post by David Becker
New York Congressman-Elect George Santos speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Annual Leadership Meeting at the Venetian Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada on November 19, 2022.

The Republican who won a congressional seat on Long Island before his claims of being a wealthy, biracial, Ukrainian descendant of Holocaust survivors were debunked had, for a while, been generally consistent about two details in his improbable life: He has long said his first name is George and his last name is Santos.

But not always.

Before George Santos, 34, made a name for himself in politics, he had insisted on being called Anthony – one of his middle names – and often used his mother’s maiden name, Devolder, eventually incorporating a company in Florida with that name.

“He hated that we called him George,” a former friend and onetime co-worker said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid being associated with him publicly. “His whole family called him Anthony. He wanted to be called Anthony. He would use the name Anthony Devolder.”

With echoes of the fabulist protagonist at the heart of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” book and movie, Santos has spun an elaborate web of lies and deceptions about his identity and his past, according to acquaintances, public records, media reports and, in some cases, by his own admission. He also claims to have suddenly come into millions of dollars in wealth over the past 18 months, even as the financial data company Dun & Bradstreet estimated in July that his private family firm, the Devolder Organization, only had $43,688 in revenue.

He said he is part Black. He said he is the grandson of Holocaust survivors. He claimed he helped develop “carbon capture technology.” He claimed to have worked at companies that never employed him. He claimed to be a graduate of two universities, only to admit that he has no college degree at all. He even said his parents’ financial hardship forced him to leave the prestigious Horace Mann School in the Bronx “months” before he could graduate. But that claim and numerous others have either been shown to be false or lacking evidence by The Washington Post and other news organizations.

Even by the low standards for truth-telling in politics, the scope of Santos’s falsehoods has been breathtaking. It has surprised Democrats who researched him and missed so many details, as well as Republicans who vouched for him.

In an unsuccessful House race in 2020 and his successful race for New York’s 3rd Congressional District in November, Santos pitched himself as a gay man of Brazilian descent at home in the Republican Party of Donald Trump. He spoke at a rally in D.C. on Jan. 5, 2021, telling the assembled crowd one day before the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol: “Who here is ready to overturn the election for Donald Trump?”

In interviews as a congressional candidate, he described himself as “the American Dream.”

He told Lara Trump in an interview this year, “I’m a business guy. I’ve done private equity for 11 years in New York,” adding that he “had the privilege of doing business” with the Trump Organization. He told another interviewer, “I’ve gone up the chains of Wall Street. I’ve developed many companies. I’ve opened my own business.” His campaign website said he had previously worked at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, and had degrees from Baruch College and New York University.

On Dec. 19, the New York Times reported that Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Baruch College and New York University had no records of him. On Monday, Santos spoke about the revelations for the first time, telling WABC he was guilty of “résumé embellishment” but insisting the larger story about his life is true: “I’m not a criminal who defrauded the entire country and made up the fictional character and ran for Congress.”

Later, Santos’s claims of having Jewish ancestors who fled persecution during World War II were challenged by a report in Jewish Insider. An undisclosed marriage, and divorce, to a woman was revealed by the Daily Beast. He also wrote on Twitter that “9/11 claimed my mothers life”; she actually passed away in 2016.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Gerard Kassar, chair of the Conservative Party of New York State. “His entire life seems to be made up. Everything about him is fraudulent.”

Santos and his representatives did not respond to numerous telephone, email and text messages seeking comment for this article. On Wednesday, Santos wrote on Twitter that he is looking forward to working in Congress.

But even before his scheduled swearing-in on Jan. 3, Santos has already spawned new proposed legislation in Congress. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) said he will introduce legislation requiring that when candidates for federal office provide details of their education, employment and military history, they do so under oath. Torres calls the bill the Stop Another Non-Truthful Office Seeker (SANTOS) Act.

The offices of New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), Nassau County District Attorney Anne T. Donnelly (R) and Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz (D) each said they are examining whether Santos broke any laws in their jurisdiction. ABC News reported that the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York, which covers Long Island, was also examining Santos’s activities; spokespeople for the office declined to comment when contacted by The Post.

Last week, Santos gave a handful of interviews that only raised more questions. Still unknown is the exact source of the $700,000 he claimed to have loaned his campaign in 2022, just two years after filing a financial disclosure report that said he had no major assets or earned income. The Times also reported suspicious spending by Santos’s campaign.

A spokesperson for the House Ethics Committee declined to comment when asked whether the committee will launch an investigation into Santos if he is sworn in next week.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent body that reviews ethical complaints from the committee, could also scrutinize Santos if the office is reauthorized by the Republican-controlled House. Kedric Payne, a former deputy chief counsel at the office, said he would expect an investigation.

“They are not going to let something like this just happen,” he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters on Wednesday that Santos is now “tattooed” on Republicans in Congress. House Republican leaders, as well as Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) and Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who endorsed Santos, did not respond to messages seeking comment about him. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX.), former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told the Washington Examiner that he is not supportive of Santos joining their conference.

Rep.-elect Nick LaLota (R-N.Y.) said in a statement that Santos should be investigated by the House Ethics Committee and “if necessary, law enforcement, is required.” Rep.-elect Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) said in a statement that Santos should “cooperate fully” with the investigations. And Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman (R) told CNN that Santos needs to address the “emotional issues” that led to his lying.

“A normal person wouldn’t do that,” Blakeman said.

The North Shore Leader, a small paper on Long Island, had raised questions about Santos in September, but those threads were largely ignored by other outlets. Robert Zimmerman, the Democrat whom Santos defeated in November, and whose campaign spent thousands of dollars on research, told The Post that “frankly a lot of folks in the media are saying they didn’t have the personnel, time or money to delve further” into the story.

Kassar, the Conservative Party of New York State’s leader, said he spoke with Santos soon after the first Times story was published. “When I spoke to him, he clearly told me he had no intention of running again and I told him that was a good idea and the Conservative Party would have a hard time endorsing him,” he said.

When Santos’s mother died on Dec. 23, 2016, he collected money from people at a church in Queens after saying he had no money for a funeral, according to a priest who spoke with CBS News.

Around this time, Santos asked the former friend and co-worker to set up a GoFundMe page so that he could raise money for the funeral, telling the person he was too distraught to submit the necessary ID and bank record requirements for the crowdfunding service.

The page shows that several hundred dollars was raised, and the friend said it went directly to Santos, who at the time was using the name Anthony Devolder on Facebook and with acquaintances around New York. The friend said they believed the money had been used for the funeral, which they attended in late December that year. Then on Jan. 6, 2017, the friend said Santos contacted them to ask if they wanted go skiing in the Poconos, where he had just rented a room. The friend declined.

In June 2020, Santos wrote on Twitter that he is the “grandson of Holocaust refugees.” This month, Jewish Insider cast doubt on that claim, noting that the dates Santos cited for his grandparents departure from Belgium to Brazil do not line up, nor do immigration records support his version of his family’s history. The Republican Jewish Coalition, which featured Santos as part of its annual November conference in Las Vegas, denounced his false claims about his heritage and said that “he will not be welcome at any future RJC event.”

In March, Santos said in a podcast interview that he was “raised Catholic, born to a Jewish family – very, very confusing religious background.” Last week, he told the New York Post: “I never claimed to be Jewish.”

Even early parts of Santos’s life story were fabricated by him.

In an October 2020 interview, Santos recalled an allegedly painful childhood experience. He said of his parents: “They sent me to a good prep school – which was Horace Mann Prep in the Bronx. And in my senior year of prep school, unfortunately, my parents fell on hard times.” Santos went on to say that at the time, his family couldn’t “afford a $2,500 tuition” and “I left school [with] four months till graduation.”

After the school was contacted by The Post and provided with several variations of Santos’s name that he has used in public, Ed Adler, a spokesman for Horace Mann, wrote in an email: “George Santos or any of the aliases you [cite] never attended HM.”

In that same March podcast interview, Santos also said, “I’ve been to Moscow many times in my career.” He also referred to “carbon capture technology” as something “that I’ve helped develop and fundraised for in my career. I’ve had a very extensive role in gas and oil in this country.” Santos and his representatives have provided no proof of those claims.

The only time Santos provided a specific defense about his falsehoods was during his interview on WABC. When asked why Goldman Sachs and Citigroup had no record of him as an employee, as he had previously claimed, Santos admitted to both lying and being sloppy in describing his actual work in the industry.

“[A] lot of people overstate in their résumés or twist a little bit,” he said. He said he worked with Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup, just not as an employee at those companies. “I did extensive work on the LP side with Goldman Sachs in my time at LinkBridge,” he said, referring to a one-time employer. “I did extensive work with Citigroup, in my time in the LP position in LinkBridge Investors, just like I did work with firms on the GP side of things like Blackstone, and Deloitte, and Robbins, Geller, Dowd and so many other big firms in the industry of private equity.”

Goldman Sachs and Citigroup declined to comment on this latest explanation. Deloitte and Blackstone did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, a law firm that sues corporations, told The Post, “We cannot verify this claim. We have no record of Mr. Santos or his business having any business relationship with our firm.”