February 1, 2023

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George Santos’ Massive Campaign Loans May Not Be Legal

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Even as Rep.-elect George Santos (R-NY) embarks on his apology tour, admitting he lied to voters for years about some of the most fundamental facts of his life, there’s been one mystery that Santos has been less than clear about: where his purported millions came from.

The Daily Beast now has at least part of the answer—the identities of four Santos corporate clients. And while this new revelation might put Santos in even more hot water, what Santos did with his newfound riches could be even more damning.

Santos has already admitted using cash from his company, the Devolder Organization, to fund his campaign—a move campaign finance experts say could add up to an unlawful $700,000 corporate contribution.

That’s because, while candidates for federal office may give unlimited amounts of their own money to their campaign, they cannot expressly tap corporate accounts to do so.

Santos confirmed to The Daily Beast on Wednesday that he withdrew money from the firm to underwrite his campaign. He made the same claim in an interview on Monday, telling WABC radio host and Santos donor John Catsimatidis that the combined $700,000 in loans—scattered in varying increments across a period of more than a year—“was the money I paid myself through the Devolder Organization.” (Santos’ most recent financial disclosure shows a $750,000 salary from the Devolder Organization, along with dividends valued between $1 million and $5 million.)

Jordan Libowitz, communications director of government watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told The Daily Beast that the government imposes strict rules on how candidates can support their campaigns.

“You can fund a campaign with your own money to whatever extent you’d like, but the deal is it has to be your money,” Libowitz said. “Two major problems here. One, if it’s the company’s money, it’s not his money. If it were Santos personally doing business as the company—that is, if it were his bank accounts—that’s okay. But this is an actual corporation, and you can’t make a corporation to run money through to your campaign.”

The reason, he explained, is that such a scheme hides the origin of the money.

“We know in previous filings he didn’t have very much money at all, so it raises a massive question of what the origins of this $700,000 are,” Libowitz said.

“If I wished to illegally fund a campaign and hide it, what I would do is run the money through a dummy corporation, then to a dark money group that supports the campaign. But if I was not that up on things, or a little lazy, I might … set up the dummy corporation, say it’s in the name of the candidate, then have the candidate pay himself the money and give it to the campaign,” Libowitz said. “This isn’t to say that this is clearly an illegal pass-through donation scheme, because we don’t know the full picture yet—but if it were one, this is what it would look like.”

Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director of government watchdog Documented, said that corporate contributions to campaigns and leadership PACs are expressly prohibited—Santos made loans to both—with “knowing and willful” violations carrying possible criminal charges.

“Santos might be in a hard place either way you slice it,” Fischer told The Daily Beast.

Speculating on the possibilities, Fischer said, “One theory is that the Devolder Organization was a shell that functioned to allow wealthy donors to secretly bankroll Santos’s 2022 run for Congress. If that [were] the case, it could implicate not just Santos but anyone who used it to knowingly evade disclosure requirements and contribution limits. But even if the Devolder Organization [is] a legitimate company, then Santos could still have violated the law if he diverted corporate funds to his campaign.”

Merely transferring funds from Devolder’s account to Santos’ own account would not magically transform the funds into Santos’ personal assets, Fischer explained.

“A candidate may lend personal funds to his campaign, but they may not do so using corporate funds. A loan is treated as a contribution, and corporations are barred from making contributions,” he said.

Santos was simultaneously running for federal office—a strenuous undertaking for any candidate—while spinning up the Devolder Organization as a lucrative financial services company. Fischer speculated that investigators may “follow the paper trail to verify Santos’ description of using corporate funds to fund his campaign—for example, by matching dates of withdrawals to the dates he made the loans.”

Santos has said he worked in the “capital introduction” business, where he would connect wealthy people looking to sell things like a boat or plane with other wealthy people looking to buy a boat or plane.

Santos, who in 2020 reported holding no assets and a salary of $55,000 from a vice president position at a financial company called LinkBridge, appears to have suddenly come into substantial wealth, claiming a net worth of as much as $11.5 million on his 2022 financial disclosure. Almost all of it came through the newly formed Devolder Organization, which the 34-year-old says paid him between $1 million and $5 million in dividends along with another $750,000 in salary.

In a conversation with The Daily Beast on Wednesday, Santos argued the money he moved from the Devolder Organization to his campaign was legally loaned from his own personal funds, because he was the company’s sole owner.

But the company is not legally indistinguishable from Santos—it is registered with the state of Florida as an independent LLC, and it has its own accounts separate from him personally.

Informed of the rules, Santos promised he would “immediately” look into the matter and rectify anything that needed to be addressed. That might be an enormous undertaking, given the amount of company money Santos appears to have put into his political efforts.

That money, it turns out, came from some wealthy sources who also had financial stakes in Santos’ political bid.

The Daily Beast has confirmed four Devolder Organization clients: the New York-based Tantillo Auto Group, two organizations tied to the influential Ruiz family in south Florida, and another firm associated with Long Island insurance magnate James C. Metzger. Santos acknowledged all four of these clients on Wednesday.

Members of the Tantillo and Ruiz families, along with Metzger, also all happen to be Santos campaign donors. And some of them have further stakes in the Long Island political scene, including major donations to top Santos ally Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), who lost his bid for governor this year.

Three members of the Tantillo family gave $44,800 to Santos’ political efforts, according to Federal Election Commission records. Three members of the Ruiz family, who appear on the incorporation documents, have given $17,300. Metzger gave $23,700. (The donations include large gifts to the Devolder Santos Victory Committee—and in Metzger’s case, Devolder Santos Nassau Victory Committee—joint fundraising groups that split money between the congressman’s campaign and his leadership PAC.)

None of the donors gave to Santos prior to 2022.

As The New York Times reported in its first article last week dismantling many of the fresh-faced Republican’s lies, none of the businesses appeared on the financial disclosure Santos filed this year. That failing, the Times reported, could run afoul of House ethics rules.

Santos told The Daily Beast he was in the process of amending his disclosure to be fully transparent, and he said he would file the disclosure next week.

Asked if he could confirm the full slate of clientele that would appear on that amendment, Santos replied that “under legal advisement, I can’t do that for the simple fact of what was missing, and what discrepancies were done there to fill in the blanks.”

He added that he had “nothing to hide” and was “doing my best” to “come clean” and atone for the lies he fed voters. He emphasized that he also wanted to look out for his clients’ best interests, and didn’t want them “burdened” by the political gauntlet he’s currently running through, as the media begins to unravel his false claims, along with other secrets that didn’t surface in either of his two congressional campaigns.

But public records already reveal a great deal. Florida corporate filings show two Devolder LLC, were created about two weeks apart in January 2022. Their leadership consists of relatives of billionaire Miami attorney John Ruiz, a personal injury and class action lawyer who parlayed his Medicare payor recovery business into a multibillion-dollar IPO that flopped this summer.

In September 2021, Alex Ruiz, then 22, became CEO of Cigarette Racing, a renowned luxury powerboat manufacturer which his family took over in the course of building their multibillion-dollar special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

A few months later, the Ruiz children created the entities that would retain the Devolder Organization. Mayra Ruiz told The Daily Beast they hired the Devolder Organization in “early” 2022, but did not reply to follow-ups. Notably, in an interview with Semafor on Wednesday, Santos named yacht sales as one of the tasks the Devolder Organization handled for its clients.

On March 31, Mayra Ruiz contributed $10,800 to Santos’ joint fundraising committee.

Other campaign finance filings reveal the extent to which Santos’ business clients were entangled not only with his campaign but with Zeldin’s—and with the local political infrastructure that supported them both.

For example, the Tantillo Auto Group controls a cluster of new and used car lots in Long Island, many in Zeldin’s House district. Patriarch Raymond Tantillo gave $50,000 to Zeldin’s gubernatorial campaign, “Zeldin for New York,” with the Tantillo Auto Group pitching in another $5,000. Catherine Tantillo also donated $50,000 to Zeldin’s ultimately unsuccessful Albany bid in March 2022.

Metzger, CEO of insurance provider The Whitmore Group—is another major New York GOP donor. In the 2022 election, he contributed $60,000 to Zeldin for New York, state records show, along with $155,000 to the Nassau County Republican Party, on Santos’ home turf. The local machine lent Santos substantial support during the campaign, both forming joint fundraising committees with his operation and paying for his lawn signs, though Nassau County Republican Party leadership has since expressed disaffection with Santos.

“Congressman-elect George Santos has broken the public trust by making serious misstatements regarding his background, experience and education, among other issues,” Nassau County Republican Party Chairman Joseph Cairo said in a press release this week.

The Devolder Organization contracted with Whitmore’s parent company, Acrisure, an agreement the congressman-elect in a conversation Wednesday clarified was not with Whitmore Group specifically, though he said he did not know how to spell Acrisure.

“That’s a great question,” Santos told The Daily Beast. (Acrisure bought the rights to Acrisure Stadium, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers.)

And the web extends beyond even the Devolder Organization’s customers. Concurrent with Santos’ second, successful congressional bid, his sister ran a political action committee called Rise NY PAC. The group’s website is currently down and was last archived in August this year. Although it professed to also have operations in California and Colorado, there is no record of it raising or spending money outside the Empire State.

The materials filed in New York show that Rise NY PAC paid around $25,000 to the Santos sibling, who he says lives with him in Long Island. Rise NY PAC also paid about $50,000 to a man named Harry Brar—the head of Nassau County Asian Affairs, who was arrested in September for allegedly choking a 10-year-old boy and assaulting his mother.

Rise NY PAC poured cash into the Zeldin- and Santos-boosting Nassau County Republican Party, as well as into a town GOP committee that in turn gave heavily to the county organization. The PAC also counted among its contributors the financier Andrew Intrater, cousin and money-manager to the sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who contributed a combined $80,000 to the PAC, per state records. Intrater and his wife were also two of the largest donors to both Zeldin and Santos.

Santos has come under increasing pressure and scrutiny since the Times reported earlier this month that he had fabricated many details of his career, including his supposed possession of a college degree and stints at prominent financial institutions. This story followed an article by The Daily Beast this past April, which uncovered his work for an alleged multi-million-dollar Ponzi scheme. Several of his coworkers from the accused investment scam, none of whom have been charged with a crime, formed a political consulting group with the Devolder Organization after the scandal broke.

The Daily Beast subsequently discovered that Santos, who has made his gay identity a central part of his political brand, had been married to a woman for several years—almost right up to the launch of his first congressional campaign in 2019. The Forward also found that Santos’ claims of Jewish roots were also without basis, something the politician later confessed, even as he bizarrely claimed that family lore allowed him to identify as “Jew-ish.”

He has also insisted he will be seated in the next Congress, despite calls for him to resign.