The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harbor City called George Santos a ‘perfect fit.’ The SEC called the company a fraud.

The inside story of the New York congressman and the now-shuttered Florida firm that employed him for more than a year

Harbor City Capital, for which Rep. George Santos once worked, had its assets frozen in 2021, when the Securities and Exchange Commission accused it of running a “classic Ponzi scheme” that had defrauded investors of millions of dollars. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
18 min

In July 2020, a small Florida-based investment firm announced that a man named George Devolder had been hired as its New York regional director. “When we had the opportunity to welcome him to our team, I was delighted,” the company’s founder and chief executive said in a news release. “He’s a perfect fit.”

Devolder is now better known as George Santos, the 34-year-old freshman Republican congressman from New York’s 3rd Congressional District who brazenly lied to voters about key details of his biography. And the company for which he was “a perfect fit,” Harbor City Capital, is no longer in operation. Its assets were frozen in 2021, when the Securities and Exchange Commission accused it of running a “classic Ponzi scheme” that had defrauded investors of millions of dollars.

The SEC complaint did not name Santos, who has denied knowledge of the alleged wrongdoing.

Court records, company documents and previously unreported footage of workplace Zoom meetings obtained by The Washington Post, as well as interviews with former Harbor City employees and investors, reveal how the firm nurtured Santos’s ambitions and acquainted him with business associates who have gone on to play notable roles in his scandal-plagued political career. When the company was shuttered in 2021, after allegedly collecting a total of $17.1 million from more than 100 individuals, Santos joined Harbor City executives in creating other businesses and political consultancies now under scrutiny after his election to Congress, according to business registration documents.

New York Republican George Santos, who is accused of fabricating details from his past, started his new congressional job Jan. 3. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

The Post’s examination found new details about how Santos came to work at Harbor City, and it revealed that Santos remained at the company long after a prospective investor told him the firm was using a fraudulent bank document.

Neither Santos nor his lawyer responded to messages seeking comment.

J.P. Maroney, Harbor City’s founder and the man who hired Santos, claimed in podcasts and YouTube videos that he had devised reliably profitable ways to generate sales leads online for other companies. He said he needed funding for this enterprise and was seeking risk-averse investors, people who might be elderly and who “can’t afford to start over,” as he once put it. He promised that the money they sent him would be safe and would fetch annual returns in the double digits, often at 18 percent.

But according to the SEC, Maroney siphoned off about $4.5 million of the investors’ money — more than a quarter of the amount raised — for his own personal use, including to buy a Mercedes-Benz and a waterfront home near Cape Canaveral, Fla. The home — a six-bedroom, eight-bathroom, 13,000-square-foot mansion — was the location for a fall 2020 fundraiser purporting to benefit President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, according to a planning document obtained by The Post.

Four Harbor City employees or associates, including Santos, were listed on the planning document as contacts for the fundraiser. Photos from the evening show Maroney was present. The event featured an appearance by Donald Trump Jr. and his fiancee, Kimberly Guilfoyle, according to someone involved in the planning who, like many people interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. That person said an artist at the event painted Guilfoyle’s portrait live.

A spokesman for Trump did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokesman for the former president’s son and Guilfoyle said he had no information about the event.

Maroney, 52, did not respond to a request for comment from The Post. In court, he has denied the SEC allegations, which were brought in federal court in Florida. The company itself has not responded in court.

In one of the 2020 Harbor City Zoom recordings, Santos said he was pursuing wealthy investors who could write checks for a minimum of $5 million. But he said he could not get Maroney to answer key questions about the company and acknowledged not fully comprehending an obscure form of credit Harbor City claimed to be using to guarantee the safety of investor money.

“I still don’t understand it completely,” he said.

Still, he presented himself publicly as the face of Harbor City’s New York operations.

“I’m actually Harbor City Capital’s head guy for New York City,” Santos said in fall 2020, during an earlier failed run for Congress, in an interview recorded by the Metropolitan Republican Club. In another interview that fall, with the Cowboy Logic Radio podcast, he did not name Harbor City but said he was managing “$1.5 billion” with the average investor putting in “about $50,000 to $175,000.” (If the average investor put in $175,000, more than 8,500 clients would be required to reach $1.5 billion.)

“We just give them a better return than a traditional 401(k),” he said on the podcast. “In my private sector job, I am actually helping mainly retirees secure their future. So that’s what I’m about. I’m about helping people.”

After Harbor City shut down, and with assistance from a fellow former Harbor City employee, Santos in 2021 formed a company, the Devolder Organization, that paid him at least $3.5 million over the next two years, according to Florida business records and financial disclosure forms he filed as a candidate. The Post could locate no evidence of a public-facing profile for Devolder or any record of business activities. Santos loaned his campaign more than $700,000 but did not report any income from Harbor City despite having been paid by the company in 2021.

Santos won election to Congress from Long Island last year based on an impressive personal story. The grandson of Holocaust survivors. Educated at New York’s best schools. Employed by elite banks. Now that story has unraveled, and Santos is under scrutiny by prosecutors in New York and Rio de Janeiro.

Joseph Murray, an attorney for Santos, said on Thursday that his client had no knowledge of wrongdoing at Harbor City. “In light of the ongoing investigation, and for the benefit of the victims, it would be inappropriate to respond other than to say that Congressman Santos was completely unaware of any illegal activity going on at Harbor City Capital,” Murray told CNN.

‘The battle of my life’

Maroney is an entrepreneur who has said he built his first business, a T-shirt company called “Cool Alternative,” at age 19. Online and at investor conferences, he has pitched himself as a savvy businessman with more than two decades of experience growing companies.

But The Post found that he emerged from personal bankruptcy only a few years before starting Harbor City. Other key figures in the company also had histories of financial or legal trouble.

Harbor City’s former chief technology officer faced foreclosure proceedings after allegedly failing to pay his mortgage for six months in 2016. An attorney for the firm resigned from the Washington state bar in lieu of discipline for alleged misconduct, and he currently faces separate felony charges of fraud and money laundering in Arizona. Santos has his own history of financial woes: He twice faced eviction proceedings for failure to pay rent.

Maroney reached potential investors at conferences and via Facebook advertising and messages, according to court records and interviews. In a webinar for prospective investors in 2018, he said that his method of generating sales leads was such a guaranteed profit engine that if they gave him money, he could promise to pay them annual interest rates of 18 percent. An investment of $100,000, he said, would fetch monthly interest payments of $1,500, and then the entire principal would be paid back after two years.

Maroney also addressed questions he said he sometimes heard about whether he was running a Ponzi scheme similar to Bernie Madoff’s. He assured them he was not. “We don’t put investor capital at risk, period, the end,” he promised in the webinar.

The company’s Facebook page was populated with positive reviews from purported investors. The Post found that nearly all of the accounts that left the reviews on the company’s page used clip art or images of other people — two featured promo shots of professional models and another the headshot of a California real estate agent of a different name — as their profile images. The profiles showed little or no activity other than praising Harbor City, and most listed no Facebook friends.

Nevertheless, the company’s sales pitches succeeded in persuading more than 100 investors to send money, according to the SEC.

Gregory Vincent, a small-business owner in Northern California, told The Post he invested $400,000 in Harbor City. He said he had seen a Facebook advertisement featuring Maroney talking about the 18 percent returns he was earning.

“I had some money that I wanted to invest, and it sounded great. He sounded like a wonderful guy. He was an excellent speaker,” Vincent said.

Vincent, 58, said that while he received some payments from Harbor City, they stopped around the time of the SEC’s investigation, and he alleges in a lawsuit against Harbor City that his principal investment was never fully repaid. He said that after working extra hours for years, he has had to put off what he hoped would be an early retirement because of the money he lost.

“I worked my butt off to make the money that I did,” he said.

Some former employees said they saw signs something was amiss.

Ajit Kumar, of Mumbai, said he served as Harbor City’s chief financial officer in 2016 after meeting Maroney online. But he spoke to Maroney only occasionally and found that Maroney was unwilling to share key details about the company’s finances, Kumar told The Post. He quit in 2017 after less than a year.

“I had requested access to company books, bank accounts and other systems which were used in the organization, which were always promised but never provided,” Kumar said. “All I got were some Excel files with basic information.”

In December 2019, Maroney contacted Santos about Harbor City, Santos recounted in one of the Zoom recordings obtained by The Post. He said Maroney had been a “client” of his whom he came to know in meetings over breakfast and lunch. Santos said Maroney “came to me at 4 o’clock in the morning,” emailing him with details about the company’s bond offering.

“I jokingly said, ‘Are you hiring?’ He said, ‘Are you looking?’” Santos added, “I still have those emails, by the way.”

By January 2020, Santos had a Harbor City email address, according to a court-appointed lawyer overseeing liquidation of the firm’s assets. That was six months before Santos’s hiring was announced publicly.

Santos was in the early stages of his first run for Congress. His role at Harbor City was to find investors in New York, according to internal company emails and a former employee. Santos was not successful in that endeavor through the summer of 2020, the former employee said, but Maroney later told this person that Santos had located someone to invest. The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that Santos secured an investment for the company in the six figures.

In his work for Harbor City, Santos used his mother’s maternal surname, Devolder, part of what he described as an effort to compartmentalize his ambitions. “From a very early age, I became George Devolder the businessman and George Santos the politician. I’ve managed to keep that very separate,” he said in one of the Zoom recordings.

He said he did not want to mention his run for Congress in communications with potential Harbor City investors. “I can really go to jail if we send out an email saying, ‘As some of you may know, I’m running for office.’ It’s soliciting at that point,” he said. “I don’t need shiny silver bracelets.” Santos did not respond to a question about what he meant.

But he did, in one instance, leverage a political contact in his search for investors, according to a fellow congressional candidate.

Josh Eisen, a wealthy self-funded candidate who ran unsuccessfully for Congress from New York in 2020, told The Post he met Santos early that year at a Republican event. Eisen, 51, said Santos later approached him with two business opportunities, one involving a guaranteed-return investment and the other involving a chocolate business. He donated to Santos’s campaign but decided against investing with him.

In the Zoom recordings, Santos acknowledged the pressure he felt to perform. “Right now, I’m fighting the battle of my life at Harbor City,” he said in one, explaining, “I need to close a big deal. I need to show J.P. he didn’t make a mistake … I admire him a lot.”

Harbor City was then claiming that a “top tier” bank had issued it a Standby Letter of Credit, or an SBLC, designed to ensure the company’s ability to pay back investors, according to the SEC and draft investor pitches obtained by The Post. But no such SBLC ever existed, the SEC alleges.

In early June 2020, Santos spoke to a prospective investor who was considering cutting a check for at least $50,000, according to emails obtained by The Post. Another Harbor City employee sent her a document with a logo from Deutsche Bank, a copy of which was obtained by The Post, that appeared to show the bank had wired 5 million euros to a Harbor City account for the issuance of an SBLC. The Post obtained a pitch document circulated within Harbor City that included a placeholder for an image of Maroney holding up the purported Deutsche Bank transfer.

Emails show that the prospective investor, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive business matter, wrote to Santos to let him know that she had called Deutsche Bank and that the bank had told her the document was fraudulent.

“We are working to resolve this matter immediately,” Santos wrote in response, adding: “I will revert back to you as soon as I hear something on my end.”

A month later, after the prospective investor received additional pitches from the company, she wrote to ask Santos for an explanation.

“Please bear with us as we are nearing a conclusion and resolve this matter,” Santos wrote, according to the email. “I look forward to servicing you soon here at Harbor city capital.”

The prospective investor told The Post she did not hear from him again.

Emails show that Santos forwarded her concerns to Paul Donion, the lawyer for Harbor City who has been accused of misconduct in Arizona and Washington state. In an email replying to Santos, Donion said that the SBLC was in place and that any confusion was due to a “disconnect” between one of the firm’s partners and Deutsche Bank.

A spokesman for the bank told The Post, “Harbor City Capital was not a client of Deutsche Bank.”

Donion, who has pleaded not guilty to the Arizona charges, did not respond to messages seeking comment. Donion’s lawyer said that while Donion had been deposed in the Harbor City court case, he had been accused of no wrongdoing in that litigation. He emphasized that the Harbor City matter has no connection to the Arizona charges or Donion’s resignation from the Washington bar.

On the same day the prospective investor raised red flags via email, a user tweeted at Santos to say that the Deutsche Bank document was a “complete fraud.” Santos responded weeks later, writing that Harbor City’s SBLC was “100% legitimate,” according to his archived tweets.

Around the same time, in June 2020, the Alabama Securities Commission barred Harbor City from selling securities in the state and added it to a “Con Watch” website, describing the company and Maroney as “fraudsters” out to deceive unsuspecting customers. The commission’s inquiry into Harbor City is ongoing, a spokesman told The Post.

Santos made his congressional campaign aware of the scrutiny in Alabama but assured the staff that he had done nothing wrong, according to someone familiar with the discussions.

‘Resilient people make it happen’

As Santos ran for Congress in 2020, he touted what he said were his 11 years of experience in the finance sector, including his work at Harbor City. “We are top, we’re within the Fortune 500 private-equity firms globally,” he told the Metropolitan Republican Club interviewer in October 2020.

The Post could find no evidence that Harbor City was ever named on a Fortune 500 list, and Santos did not respond to a question about the statement.

Santos has claimed he left Harbor City on March 1, 2021. He received payments from the company through April, the same month the SEC filed its complaint, The Post previously reported.

In the weeks after Harbor City was shut down, Santos formed new businesses with colleagues from the company.

One of those businesses was the Devolder Organization, the family company from which he has reported receiving an annual salary of $750,000 and dividends totaling at least $1 million per year in 2021 and 2022. Santos established that company with the help of a firm created by former Harbor City executive DeVaughn Dames. Dames did not respond to a request for comment.

It was an astonishing change in fortunes: His financial disclosure form from his run for Congress in 2020 shows he earned no salary that year, and just $55,000 in 2019, from LinkBridge Investors, a firm that hosts conferences for investors and asset managers. (That same year, Maroney spoke at a LinkBridge conference, according to a news release that described him as a seasoned investor and entrepreneur.)

A consulting company formed by Santos after the SEC crackdown, Red Strategies USA, also counts other former Harbor City executives’ companies as controlling members, according to corporate records. They include Dames, who described himself as Harbor City’s chief financial officer, and former chief technology officer Jayson Benoit. A company linked via a shared address to Nancy Marks, Santos’s campaign treasurer, is also listed as a controlling member.

Santos was an avid salesman for Red Strategies. According to GOP operatives familiar with the discussions, he encouraged Tina Forte, the Republican who ran unsuccessfully in New York’s 14th Congressional District last year against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), to sign with Red Strategies and to enlist Dames and Marks for her campaign. Santos made his pitch without disclosing that he had a stake in the company, the operatives said.

The Forte campaign paid more than $100,000 in 2021 to Red Strategies for fundraising and digital consulting, among other fees, federal records show. Forte split with the firm when she learned about its ownership, one of the operatives said.

Forte declined to comment. A Florida attorney who represented Red Strategies in the dispute did not respond to requests for comment.

Neither Benoit nor Marks responded to requests for comment.

In recent months, since Maroney was forced to shutter Harbor City, he has remained active on Facebook, posting about business, leadership and moneymaking methods. In August, with his assets frozen and amid the federal probe, he solicited input from his followers for a new podcast and book that he claimed would be forthcoming. Their purported title: “The Flop Factor: How To Fail Your Way To Success!”

Two months later, he secured a stay in the SEC case, saying that he was the target of a criminal investigation into the Harbor City matter. Neither Maroney nor Santos has been charged with a crime.

Santos was elected to Congress in November, helping the GOP secure its narrow majority in the House. He has apologized for what he called “résumé embellishment” but rejected calls for his resignation.

“Resilient people make it happen,” he said in one of the Zoom recordings from 2020, when he was struggling to sell investments in Harbor City. “It doesn’t matter how. They just make it happen. And that’s what I’m gonna do.”

Samuel Oakford contributed to this report.