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Congressman-elect George Santos (R-NY), embroiled in a scandal over his resume and claims made on the campaign trail, sits alone in the House Chamber surrounded only by the children of other representatives, on the first day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 3, 2023.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
A member of George Santos’ political team had a plan to raise money for the Republican congressman’s campaign: Impersonate the chief of staff of now House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Wealthy donors received calls and emails from a man who said he was Dan Meyer, McCarthy’s chief of staff, during the 2020 and 2022 election cycles, according to people familiar with the matter. His name was actually Sam Miele, and he worked for Santos raising money for his campaign, according to one GOP donor who contributed to Santos’ campaign. This financier and some others in this story declined to be named in order to speak freely about private discussions.
The impersonation of the top House Republican’s chief of staff adds to an emerging picture of a winning congressional campaign propelled by fabrications and questionable tactics. Santos now finds himself in the sights of investigators and in danger of losing his political career even after he’s been sworn into office. In raising money for his campaign, Santos fed donors the same falsehoods he gave voters, campaign fundraisers and others say.
At private events with GOP donors and political leaders, Santos would flaunt or hint at key parts of his resume that have turned out to be false, according to records and people familiar with the matter. The Republican would also tout his business record that’s now in question, including claims that he worked on Wall Street, as a way to encourage donors to contribute to his campaign, according to financiers and party operatives familiar with the matter.
“We were duped,” said a Republican political strategist close to GOP donors and the leadership of the Republican Jewish Coalition. The group banned Santos from future events after the revelation that the congressman falsely claimed to be Jewish.
The lies and embellishments helped Santos and his allies raise nearly $3 million for his winning 2022 campaign to represent New York’s 3rd District. The donations were spread between Santos’ campaign, a pro-Santos leadership PAC and two joint fundraising committees that were created to bring in money for his campaign, his leadership PAC and the Nassau County Republican Committee, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Some of the tactics deployed by campaign fundraisers have raised eyebrows among ethics and legal experts. Brendan Fischer, a deputy executive director of the watchdog Documented, and Robert Maguire, a research director at campaign ethics watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, each told CNBC that the impersonation of McCarthy’s chief of staff could have broken the law.
“A person who misrepresented themselves as speaking on behalf of a candidate in order to raise money may have committed a criminal violation, and any other person who knowingly and willfully participated in the plan could also face criminal charges,” Fischer said in an email.
The Washington Times reported last month that one of Santos’ staffers was impersonating Meyer, but didn’t identify who it was. McCarthy’s team first learned about a Santos staffer impersonating the speaker’s chief of staff in August 2021, the Times wrote. The publication said the staffer would call donors pretending to be Meyer and send follow-up emails from a fake address.
Neither Santos nor anyone mentioned in this story has been charged with a crime. Santos’ lawyer would not say when asked whether Santos knew Miele pretended to be McCarthy’s chief of staff.
Santos has said in interviews that he is only guilty of embellishing his resume and never committed any crimes. He has apologized for embellishing his past.
Santos’ attorney, Joe Murray, did not respond to follow-up requests for comment. Calls to Santos’ congressional office were not answered and emails to the incoming lawmaker were not returned.
McCarthy’s spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Miele also did not respond to repeated calls and emails for comment.
Embellishing his past to donors
Santos had major New York-area donors in his corner during a congressional bid that helped Republicans flip control of the House. John Catsimatidis, a billionaire and founder of the New York grocery chain Gristedes, donated at least $4,650 to the Santos campaign between the primary and general elections, according to FEC records. Catsimatidis, who told CNBC he has no plans to help Santos again if he runs for reelection, also said he had never heard from a purported member of McCarthy’s staff trying to raise money for the Santos campaign.
When asked if he felt duped by Santos’ claims about his past and why he chose to support him in the first place, Catsimatidis only wrote back, “I wait for all the facts.”
Santos also received $2,900 in September from Elliott Management founder Paul Singer, according to the FEC. Groups supporting Santos also saw more than $41,000 in donations during the two-year election cycle from Andrew Intrater, an investor and cousin of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. Intrater and a representative for Elliott Management did not respond to requests for comment.
Santos’ pattern of misrepresenting his biography at times contributed to fundraising success. It extended to falsehoods about his religion.
Santos attended the RJC’s annual leadership meeting in November and claimed there that he was Jewish. Weeks later, he went to an RJC “Hanukkah Party” in Sands Point, New York, according to an invitation to the event and photo that Santos posted on Twitter. The invitation encouraged members known as “RJC Leaders” — who donate at least $1,000 to the larger organization — to attend.
His campaign took even more steps to portray Santos as Jewish. It shared a position paper with Jewish and pro-Israel leaders that called the then-candidate a “proud American Jew,” according to a copy shared by The Forward.
Santos is not Jewish. He recently told the New York Post that he “never claimed to be Jewish. Because I learned my maternal family had a Jewish background, I said I was ‘Jew-ish.'”
The RJC is considered the most prominent group of Jewish Republican donors, making gatherings such as the Hanukkah event key networking platforms for politicians. While the Hanukkah party was not a fundraising event, RJC members can donate anywhere between $100 and $25,000 to join the group and attend such gatherings, according to the group’s website.
One RJC board member who donated to Santos’ campaign told CNBC that the Republican’s claims of being Jewish appealed to him. Attorney Eric Levine gave $500 to Santos in May, according to an FEC filing. Levine said he donated to the campaign at the request of a friend.
Levine told CNBC that he later “soured” on Santos after the incoming lawmaker started aligning his views with ultraconservative House members such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. Levine recently wrote in an emailed essay to colleagues that what “Santos did is disgusting. He deserves to be humiliated and held in contempt.”
A spokesman for the RJC pointed CNBC to the group’s recent statement on Santos, which declared “he will not be welcome at any future RJC events.”
Congressman-elect George Santos (R-NY), embroiled in a scandal over his resume and claims made on the campaign trail, sits alone in the House Chamber surrounded only by the children of other representatives on the first day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 3, 2023.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
At least one other Santos supporter felt compelled to help the campaign based on the candidate’s embellished resume. Charles Vallone told CNBC that he met Santos at a GOP fundraiser, and the candidate impressed him with claims that he worked on Wall Street at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. Neither firm has any records that he worked there, according to The New York Times. Spokespeople for both firms declined to comment further.
“I met George at a Republican fundraiser and now looking back with what we know today, [I] unfortunately believed in him and was duped like all others who supported him and believed in his representations,” said Vallone, founding partner at tax and accounting firm Frankel Loughran Starr & Vallone.
He said Santos would speak to supporters and donors “about his financial background and experience on Wall Street. That he was a true immigrant story, coming from nothing and working his way up. … Now we know that is not the case.”
Vallone gave $17,900 in August between Santos’ campaign, his leadership PAC and a joint fundraising committee, according to FEC records. The Santos campaign also paid $11,000 in August to 33 West Main Street Holdings, a company owned by Vallone, to rent a house in Oyster Bay, New York, for office space, FEC records show. Vallone said he would not rent to the Santos campaign again.
The house includes a one-bedroom apartment that the campaign rented. Vallone said he does not know how the Santos team used the apartment. The FEC prohibits spending campaign funds for personal use, including on rent for a personal residence. No public records could be found to show if Santos or anyone else lived in the residence.
A string of questionable tactics
Santos has come under fire from Democratic lawmakers and some Republican officials for lying about key elements of his resume. Prosecutors from the Eastern District of New York are examining Santos’ finances, including potential irregularities involving financial disclosures and loans Santos made to his campaign while he was running for Congress, according to NBC News.
The nonprofit watchdog Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Santos on Monday, accusing the new lawmaker of violating campaign finance laws in his run for Congress.
Rep. James Comer, a Kentucky Republican who was chosen as the next chairman of the House Oversight Committee, recently said on Fox News that he’s “pretty confident” the House Ethics Committee will investigate Santos.
The larger federal probe appears to focus, in part, on a loan of over $700,000 Santos made to his campaign.
The headaches facing the campaign are even broader. The Federal Election Commission flagged more than a dozen donations in letters to the Santos campaign over the course of the 2022 election cycle, including two made by a Chinese immigrant named Cheng Gao, who was a prolific donor to former President Donald Trump’s first presidential run. The commission said it appears Gao exceeded the legal limit for campaign donations, as he gave $11,200 to the Santos campaign during the primary season, records show.
Gao could not be reached for comment.
The odd behavior includes payments to the campaign fundraiser who was said to impersonate McCarthy’s chief of staff on fundraising calls. The campaign paid Sam Miele almost $50,000 for fundraising consulting during Santos’ failed 2020 run for Congress, and over $42,000 during the successful 2022 cycle, FEC records show.
Miele’s payments from the Santos campaign during the 2022 midterms went through an obscure limited liability company called The One57 Group, according to FEC records. Florida business records show that Miele is the manager of the company. The final $5,995 payment to the Miele-led company came in January 2022, according to an FEC filing.
Santos’ lawyer Murray said that Miele’s company was “let go about a year ago.”
An archived version of the company’s website boasts clients in New York, Washington, Florida and California. Yet, FEC records indicate that the The One57 Group has picked up very few political clients since it was first formed in New Jersey in early 2021.
Republican Tina Forte, who ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., paid The One57 Group $500 in 2021 for what the filing calls “campaign consulting,” according to an FEC filing. A search through federal and state campaign finance records in New York, Florida and California shows that the company has seen only a few payments from any other political operation other than the Santos and Forte campaigns.
The One57 Group received only two payments in 2021 totaling $9,965 from the Rise NY PAC, a GOP-aligned group, according to New York state campaign finance records. Intrater donated $80,000 to the PAC over the course of the 2022 election cycle, state records show.
The payments to The One57 Group are just a fraction of the moves made by the Santos campaign that experts said were, at the very least, bizarre.
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