On his way to a seat in Congress, George Santos made a whirlwind journey through New York political circles that left anger and disappointment among fellow Republicans in his wake.
Santos, who found himself in the spotlight after winning a congressional race last year and subsequently being exposed as a serial fabulist who lied about his life and career on the campaign trail, is now facing multiple investigations and a pile of criminal charges related to his personal finances and campaign operation. As TPM first reported on Tuesday, a House Ethics Committee probe that is focused on Santos amid calls for his expulsion, is looking into his dealings with another New York candidate, far-right House hopeful Tina Forte. According to Forte’s former campaign manager, Santos steered the first-time congressional candidate to a consulting firm that earned a six-figure sum from her campaign without disclosing the fact that he was involved in the company. Other Republican candidates in New York had a similar experience with Santos and were left feeling burned.
The Daily Beast and New York Times both have reported on Santos’ wild run through the New York City GOP. TPM dug into the mess and found further details of how it all played out including surreal Zoom calls where Santos allegedly pretended not to know his business associates. Santos’ foray into the realm of political consulting left behind lingering resentments as he and his associates used what one source described as “sketchy” tactics to insinuate themselves into the campaigns of two other first-time GOP candidates in New York City. Multiple sources said Santos’ failure to disclose his relationship to the firms he recommended left behind hurt feelings and resentment as they racked up tens of thousands of dollars in fees.
One GOP state Senate candidate who says he fell victim to Santos told TPM that the experience left him feeling like Santos would “gladly step on other people to get ahead in life.”
Santos has consistently denied any wrongdoing as he has faced criminal prosecutions and growing scrutiny over his campaign operations. He did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Stefano Forte was a 23-year-old first-time candidate for the New York state Senate in Queens when he worked with Santos last year. Forte, who is not related to Tina Forte, is one of three other Republicans in the five boroughs who said they unwittingly ended up doing business with Santos.
Forte and Santos had known each other through New York City Republican circles before the two both geared up to run in different races in the 2022 election. Forte told TPM that after he entered the 2022 state Senate race, Santos swooped in to offer advice and praise for a “great company” that had done work for him. However, there was a problem: Santos did not reveal his own role in the firm.
“I would call him a partner I didn’t know that I had because he didn’t disclose it,” Forte said, adding that he believes Santos would have “bled him dry” had he stayed with the firm.
Public records show that Forte, who ultimately lost his race, paid over $15,000 last year to “Redstone Strategies LLC,” a firm that is part of a network of Florida companies that have links to Santos and his associates. Redstone was identified as “Company #1” in the superseding indictment against Santos that was filed earlier this month.
Corporate filings indicate Redstone Strategies was incorporated on Nov. 1, 2021, three months before it received the first payment from Forte’s campaign. The company’s management structure included Santos’ “Devolder Organization,” which he has described as his family’s company, and a firm run by Jayson Benoit, who worked with Santos at Harbor City, a Florida investment firm. The SEC has said Harbor City Capital Corp. operated as a “classic Ponzi scheme.” The Daily Beast first reported that Santos recommended the company to Forte without disclosing his tie to the firm.
After bringing Redstone into the fold, Santos took the fledgling state Senate campaign for a ride, Forte said. He recalled having to write his own copy, produce images, and edit for Facebook advertising that Redstone Strategies was supposed to create. Forte said he watched as the fundraising efforts led by the firm slowed to a trickle over the course of several months while it collected a monthly retainer that began to exceed the amount of contributions his campaign was bringing in. In Forte’s telling, Redstone Strategies was pushing him into the red.
Forte, still not knowing that Santos was behind the firm, terminated his contract in June 2022 via Benoit, who was his contact at the company. He quickly heard from Santos, who suggested that Forte was disrespecting a well-established political force by severing ties with the seven-month-old business.
“George called me in a huff,” Forte recalled, before mimicking the now-congressman: “I put my reputation on the line for you, you can’t just do this to a fundraising company of this caliber.”
“No one is going to help you in the party after this, this is not good,” Forte recalled Santos telling him.
The relationship with Redstone Strategies was over, but after Forte lost the race in November 2022, he decided to contact donors to thank them for contributing to his campaign. Forte asked Benoit, his Redstone Strategies contact, for the address of one donor. Benoit, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, apologetically responded that he couldn’t help.
Forte last spoke with Santos in December. Santos, who had been elected one month prior, wanted to offer Forte a job in his new congressional office.
Of course, two things had happened in the intervening time: Forte had learned that Santos was part of the Redstone Strategies management structure, and the New York Times had revealed that the congressman-elect was a serial fabricator.
“I was like, ‘George, you’ve got to be honest with me: Who are you?’” Forte recalled.
Santos responded by minimizing the issue with boasts about his connections and apparently fictional fortune. It was quintessential Santos. Forte said Santos claimed that Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who was speaker of the House at the time, would “make this all go away.” Santos also said he planned to contribute $1 million to the NRCC to smooth things over.
Forte then brought up Redstone Strategies and said he knew Santos hadn’t disclosed his relationship with the company. Santos’ alleged response relied on the murky and dizzying array of corporate paperwork involved in the management of the Florida firms, which can all be linked to Santos and his former Harbor City colleagues.
“And he said no, no no, I’m an owner in Redstone Strategies. This is just Red Strategies. So, it’s a different company entirely,” Forte recalled.
Like Redstone Strategies, the similarly named Red Strategies USA LLC had companies connected to Santos, Benoit, and other former Harbor City executives in its management structure.
Forte told TPM that he hasn’t spoken to Santos since.
Records show the two Santos-linked companies took on a wide variety of campaign tasks that are often handled by separate, specialized firms. Federal, state, and local campaign finance reports indicate the businesses billed candidates for different services including robocalls, video production, and fundraising.
Along with Stefano Forte’s experience with Redstone Strategies, Red Strategies worked with at least three other New York City candidates. Their stories paint a picture of Santos aggressively steering relatively inexperienced politicians towards his business associates and often leaving them dissatisfied with the work.
A Republican source familiar with Santos’ involvement in campaigns, who requested anonymity due to the ongoing investigations, described how he would recommend the consultancy. According to the source, whenever a candidate came to Santos with a problem, Red Strategies was the answer.
Tina Forte’s campaign made over 76 payments totaling over $110,000 to Red Strategies USA, LLC during her failed House campaign last year. Along with being upset at Santos for not disclosing his role in the firm, Tina Forte’s former campaign manager blamed the company for producing shoddy paperwork and allegedly trying to obscure how much money it drew from her campaign.
In 2021, Jordan Hafizi was a Republican New York City Council candidate who, records show, paid $22,450 to Red Strategies USA LLC for services including video production. Hafizi, who lost his race, did not exactly offer an endorsement of the firm’s work when reached by TPM.
“I was looking around for places and I was asking people for recommendations and they were someone that was recommended,” Hafizi said. “Was I satisfied? No comment.”
The Republican source familiar with Santos’ involvement in local campaigns said the future congressman presented himself as someone interested in “helping” Hafizi, who was a 21-year-old first-time candidate. According to the source, Santos promised to get Hafizi a “good deal” for an ad with Red Strategies, and bragged about its ties to Tina Forte. But when the ad came through, it was a disappointment. The result looked “cheesy,” the source said.
Records also show that Red Strategies USA LLC received $4,213.52 in 2021 from the campaign of Vickie Paladino, a Republican who won a seat on the City Council that year. Vickie Paladino referred questions about the firm’s work on her race to her son, Tom Paladino, who was a consultant on his mother’s team and also worked in a similar capacity for Stefano Forte.
“A big part of what Santos seems to have been doing is not telling anybody that this was his company. … Like he got on Zoom calls with people pretending to … make a neutral introduction to this company, meanwhile he was actually one of the owners of it, or the founder, whatever he was,” Tom Paladino told TPM. “I had no idea that this was his company. We didn’t know.”
Despite the unusual circumstances, Paladino said Red Strategies “did the work.”
Red Strategies helped run “a couple of weeks of robocalls” for his mother, Paladino said. They felt it was “a legit service.”
Santos was perhaps able to involve himself with other candidates because he projected an air of success, Paladino suggested. That included his association with Marks, who Paladino said was known as “the gold standard” in New York GOP circles. Santos also bolstered his standing with claims of wealth that, according to prosecutors, were fueled with lies and ill-gotten gains.
Santos’ ability to charm his fellow Republicans was also, in Paladino’s view, aided by the fact the party has traditionally struggled to gain footing in the New York City area.
“He built himself up in a way that made himself seem very impressive,” Paladino said. “Nobody really wanted to look below the surface because Republicans in New York in general are very happy to have candidates who seem like they have a shot.”