U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-Queens/L.I.) turned himself in to federal authorities Wednesday morning following an indictment on 13 charges that span allegations that he used campaign funds for personal shopping, fraudulently claimed unemployment benefits, and lied to Congress about his income — but one key local supporter is standing by his side.
Tony Nunziato, chairman of the Queens County Republican Party, told THE CITY that he’s still not ready to call for Santos’ resignation from the congressional seat he won last year — and will not do so unless Santos is convicted.
“I’ll wait for the convictions. I believe in the court system,” Nunziato said in a phone interview. “I’m waiting to see what they say in court. Especially lately, we see many people being indicted. But they were wrong, and they were set free.”
Santos pleaded not guilty to all charges on Wednesday.
Nunziato said he was “very discouraged, very sad about all these charges.”
He also stands apart from his predecessor as Queens Republican party chair, Joann Ariola, who is now a City Council member representing southeastern parts of the borough. In January, Ariola called Santos a “distraction” and demanded that he resign.
“Long before George Santos had to surrender to federal court, my position on him was clear — I felt that he had defrauded the public’s trust, and that he should resign,” she said in a statement to THE CITY Wednesday. “This matter is now in the hands of federal prosecutors, and I trust that justice will prevail once this is all over.”
New York State Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox meanwhile called on Santos to vacate his congressional seat. “Santos should resign. He should have been gone a long time ago,” Cox told the New York Post.
‘Repeated Dishonesty and Deception’
Santos sailed to election with little scrutiny last year in New York’s 3rd Congressional District, but quickly saw his fabricated life story ripped to shreds in the media. News reports showed Santos lied about virtually every aspect of his resume, including his education, work history, charitable activities and real estate holdings.
The federal indictment from a grand jury convened by U.S. Attorney Breon Peace of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York brings criminal charges into play. Federal prosecutors allege that Santos directed a Queens political consultant to solicit money for a campaign super PAC that was not registered as such with the Internal Revenue Service. The political action committee then falsely told prospective donors to Santos that funds raised would be used for campaign ads and other expenses.
In fact, prosecutors allege, the funds went to a bank account that Santos used to buy “luxury designer clothing” and make credit card, car and personal debt payments, as well as cash transfers to “personal associates.”
The feds also allege that Santos fraudulently received nearly $25,000 in pandemic unemployment insurance benefits, while employed at a salary of about $120,000 at a Florida-based investment firm. Still other charges allege that Santos made false statements in the financial disclosure filings that all members of Congress must file and make public, inflating his income.
“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,” Peace said in a statement.
Nunziato, however, said Santos should be afforded the protection of due process — and that equal scrutiny and accountability should be applied to other politicians.
He also called the attention brought onto Santos a “distraction” from more pressing issues like the influx of migrants into the city. He added that many members of the Queens GOP already feel “betrayed,” and that he “will be the first” to call on Santos to step down if convicted by the court.
“If it’s all true, it’s despicable,” Nunziato said. But “it’s not a conviction, it’s an indictment, so I want to see if there are any answers to it.”
Santos’ office referred to his lawyer, Joe Murray, for comment. Murray did not immediately return THE CITY’s request for comment.
The FBI is investigating the case with the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office and the IRS’s Criminal Investigation unit.
Santos could face 20 years in prison if convicted of the charges.
Danielle Caputo, legal counsel for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, said Congress has few rules on what happens when a member is indicted, aside from triggering an investigation from the House Committee on Ethics, or else an explanation about why one won’t be conducted.
The committee already announced an independent investigation into Santos in March following a slew of misconduct allegations.
While a sitting member of Congress cannot be impeached, either chamber could move to expel a member with a two-thirds vote, Caputo said.
But “expulsion is generally really rare,” she told THE CITY. The last member to be expelled from the U.S. House of Representatives was Ohio Democrat Jim Traficant, following his 2002 conviction on 10 criminal counts including bribery, racketeering and tax evasion.
In the U.S. Senate, the last member expulsion in the Senate was in 1862, she said.
“In current history, I don’t think a member has ever been — in the House or the Senate —been expelled for an indictment” alone, without a conviction, Caputo said. “Most often, the member will end up resigning more than anything else.”
This story has been updated.