Profligate spending. A pile of inquiries from federal regulators about campaign finance improprieties. And a “Holocaust painter” in Florida who feels betrayed.
It’s a bizarre list of items for anyone to leave in their wake, but in this case, it’s the detritus of the winning 2022 congressional campaign of the serial fabulist George Santos. Now, in exclusive interviews with TPM, two staffers on Santos’ campaign react to the recent revelations about his lies and wonder if they should have seen the warning signs sooner.
One veteran political operative, who briefly worked with Santos’ campaign, said they quit because it was apparent there were issues.
“I got nervous and I got defensive that things were not on the up and up. I felt like things were not right,” said the operative, who requested anonymity due to professional concerns.
According to the operative, doing their “due diligence” and going through the campaign’s books left them with many questions. This included the fact that, at the time, Santos had not yet filed a personal financial disclosure.
“I thought that the lack of a financial disclosure, the messiness of the books, and the reporting were not great,” the operative said.
Candidates must file disclosures with the House clerk when they raise or spend $5,000 in an individual election cycle. Santos did that within the first quarter of 2021, according to documents on file with the Federal Election Commission. However, his financial disclosure — which displayed a sudden increase in wealth — was not filed until September 6, 2022.
Toby Gotesman, a well-known artist based in Florida, briefly worked for the Santos campaign as a fundraising consultant. In a conversation with TPM, Gotesman said she joined his team after meeting him at a fundraiser.
“I met George maybe three times ever,” Gotesman explained. “I just introduced him to two or three people and got a couple checks for him.”
Initially, Gotesman said she felt “something wasn’t right and I couldn’t put my finger on it.” She cited the fact that Santos boasted about buying a Hermes bag that cost over $10,000, which she felt would be an exorbitant purchase for a politician. However, Gotesman said she “liked” him and was drawn to the idea of an openly gay Brazilian immigrant making it to Capitol Hill.
“I loved that there would be a Republican gay congressman,” Gotesman said.
In December, the New York Times broke the news that Santos had exaggerated many aspects of his backstory. This included false claims of past work with major Wall Street firms and tragic tales about his family’s personal history. Gotesman said she now has regrets about her work with Santos.
“You know how your first instinct of a red flag is always what comes back to bite you in the ass later?” Gotesman said.
More Money, More Problems
Congressional campaigns are required to file regular reports on their finances with the FEC. TPM combed through thousands of pages of the reports filed by Santos’ team throughout last year and 2021, which were studded with irregularities and eyebrow-raising expenditures. Santos did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Santos’ filings include line items for what appear to be personal expenses including meals, clothing, and rent. Multiple meals took place at a D.C. area casino. FEC filings also recorded visits to hotels and restaurants in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Nusr-et, the infamously expensive Miami outpost of the “Salt Bae” steakhouse empire, appears as a campaign expense, as do “staff meetings” and a “lunch with donor” at Bergdorf Goodman, a restaurant located in the luxury Manhattan department store.
Federal campaigns are required to identify any donor who gives above $200 in a given calendar year. Donors are not permitted to give more than $2,900 to a single candidate in a given election. Yet some of the original versions of Santos’ reports included pages of contributions attributed simply to “anonymous.” Certain donors were listed as having given more than the $5,800 permitted for both a primary and general election.
The irregularities didn’t go unnoticed by regulators. During the last election cycle, the FEC sent the Santos campaign over 20 letters notifying it of issues with its campaign filings. These included 14 letters about “apparent excessive contributions” from donors and eight citing insufficient information about loans made to the campaign. The FEC also raised multiple red flags about totals of spending and cash on hand that did not add up between the various reports. These notifications instructed the campaign to amend filings if a mistake had been made.
At several points, the FEC subsequently notified the Santos campaign of new issues in these amended filings. In total, Santos’ campaign filed 26 different amended versions of the 10 main reports that had to be filed during the 2022 election cycle.
Apparent irregularities in Santos’ campaign finance reports were the subject of a civil complaint filed with the FEC on Monday by the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan non-profit founded by Trevor Potter, a Republican former FEC commissioner. The group alleged that Santos “appears to have violated federal campaign finance laws by knowingly and willfully concealing the true sources of his campaign’s funding, misrepresenting how his campaign spent its money, and illegally paying for personal expenses with campaign funds.”
The complaint alluded to Santos’ admitted embellishments of his personal history and said further questions were raised about his finances due to his “well-documented penchant for dishonesty.” It also cited the “sudden windfall” in personal income that allowed him to make loans “totaling $705,000” to his campaign, an unusually high number of disbursements for “exactly $199.99,” and some charges that did not appear to correspond with items sold by the listed vendors.
CLC specifically noted the campaign “claimed to have spent exactly $199.99 on 7 disbursements to Il Bacco Restaurante of Little Neck, NY.” In total, between April 2021 and September of last year, the Santos campaign spent more than $13,000 at the restaurant on 28 separate occasions. TPM reached out to the restaurant to ask about its dealings with Santos. The voicemail box was full. The restaurant declined to connect TPM with its owner.
The Republican operative Santos briefly worked with had another major concern, they told TPM. Namely: “Who are we spending money with?”
The operative said they felt there were “weird, weird things” on the campaign’s books including what looked like “personal spending” and an overall “burn rate” that was far too high to run a healthy campaign operation.
“I don’t know why we were at Il Bacco all the time,” the operative said. “It didn’t seem like we needed to be doing that.”
Other expenses veer away from the extravagant and into the suspect. The Santos campaign paid $43,088.21 to The One57 Group LLC, a company run by campaign staffer Sam Miele. Miele misrepresented himself as chief of staff to Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) while raising cash for Santos from deep-pocketed Republican donors, according to a report from CNBC that was confirmed by the operative TPM spoke with. On an archived version of One57 Group’s website, the firm bills itself as a triple threat: real estate, capital investments, and “business & political.” The site also included a disclaimer that the company was unrelated to “The One57 building located in New York City,” the Manhattan skyscraper for which it was apparently not named.
When the operative tried to ask about their concerns about how money was being spent, they said the campaign treasurer, Nancy Marks, stonewalled them.
“Nancy Marks was a challenge. She was not forthcoming,” the operative said. “I could never get an answer or even just a weekly report of what’s our cash in and cash out.”
Marks has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Along with being the treasurer of Santos’ campaign, records indicate Marks was involved with a strategy firm tied to Santos and executives at Harbor City, the alleged “ponzi scheme” where he once worked. A holding company registered at Marks’ home address was listed as an authorized member of the firm, Red Strategies USA, LLC, which received over $110,000 from the campaign of Tina Forte, an unsuccessful Republican congressional candidate in New York. Forte’s treasurer was DeVaughn Dames, a former Harbor City executive who is also linked to other businesses associated with Santos. Dames and Forte have not responded to multiple requests for comment.
In initial conversations with Santos, Gotesman said he cast Marks as someone who dealt with aspects of the campaign’s finances that he could not be involved in.
“He was explaining to me how certain things worked with the campaign, and there were certain things he couldn’t know about, and I had to deal with Nancy if somebody wanted to give more than the limit,” Gotesman recounted.
Gotesman, who has not worked on many campaigns, assumed this was due to strict adherence to campaign rules and it actually allayed some of her initial concerns. However, once the news came out about Santos’ fabrications, she was upset.
“Now, after the fact that I see what he did, and then I started to think here I am introducing my lifetime friends to this guy and asking them for money,” Goatesman said. “I wish I hadn’t.”
Santos’ extraordinary embellishments included apparently false claims that he had Jewish ancestry and that his family survived the Holocaust. Gotesman’s family survived the Holocaust and many of her paintings focus on related themes. When she saw news reports about Santos’ Holocaust claims, Gotesman began to suspect he got the idea from her.
“I come from Holocaust survivors, rest in peace both of them. I sat with him, not one time did he mention anything to me about being Jewish or part of the Holocaust,” Gotesman said. “I had no idea. He told me he was Catholic.”
Once the story broke, Gotesman saw videos of Santos claiming to be Jewish and descended from survivors. She was stunned.
“I saw that on YouTube and I was like, holy shit. That’s when I thought he was a sociopath. It occurs to me now, I think that he got that idea from me. … He knew I was a Holocaust painter. He knew it very well. How do you sit down with a very famous Holocaust artist and not say a word about your own family?”
Overall, Gotesman said the experience left her “a little scared” for her own safety and unsure what Santos is capable of.
As strange as the apparent lies about his backstory are, the operative who works with Santos’ campaign believes the campaign finance irregularities are the congressman’s most serious issue.
“Lying on your resume is one thing,” the operative said. “But I think George is going to be perp walked out of a building because of this financial mess.”