The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

George Santos’s shady campaign money, explained

Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) arrives for a vote on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
6 min

Rep. George Santos’s (R-N.Y.) move to step down from his committee assignments Tuesday is the surest sign to date that the Republican Party feels compelled to rethink its posture on him. No matter how badly House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) needs Santos’s vote, every situation has its breaking point. And even raw political calculus like McCarthy’s must account for his party potentially having to own a scandal that it allowed to fester.

And the scandal is really festering: A watchdog group weeks ago alleged that Santos’s finances are indicative of what’s known as a “straw donor” scheme — when a candidate hides their illegal, true source of funds — and in recent days there’s been plenty more to raise eyebrows.

Let’s run down what we’ve learned and the major issues involved. Santos’s lies about his background are one thing; his legal liabilities and financial issues probably loom even larger over his ability to continue serving in Congress.

The $199 expenses

The Campaign Legal Center, among others, spotlighted this highly suspicious trend in Santos’s campaign reports.

Basically, federal election law requires every expense of $200 or more to include documentation, and Santos’s reports included “an astounding 40 disbursements between $199 and $200, including 37 disbursements of exactly $199.99,” per the watchdog group.

Even for an entity with a large volume of expenses, that’s exceedingly improbable. Politico found that more than 90 percent of 2022 House and Senate campaigns never record even one expense between $199 and $199.99. Only 25 campaigns had an expense of exactly $199.99 — much less 37 of them, including eight at one Italian restaurant alone.

One of those $199.99 expenditures was for an October 2021 stay at the W South Beach hotel in Miami. The Miami New Times quoted a hotel representative saying it would be impossible for a member of the public to get such a rate (the cheapest room in October generally costs about $1,000).

The Washington Post reported last week that many more $199.99 payments were at one point simply listed in Santos’s reports as being made to “anonymous”:

[One filing] showed that the Santos campaign had paid “anonymous” recipients a total of $117,800, accounting for nearly half the campaign’s total spending during that period. The money was doled out in 590 separate payments, all but two of which were for $199.99 — just one penny beneath the threshold at which campaigns must keep receipts.

Santos’s campaign indicated more than a month ago that the expenditures resulted from a “database error.” But an implausible number of them remain even in his amended reports.

The phantom donors

Even if you accepted that “database error” explanation at face value, it’s hardly the only problem with Santos’s filings. Those reports also list Santos donors who don’t seem to exist — at least, not in the way that they’re described on paper.

Mother Jones found more than a dozen large donations to Santos’s losing 2020 campaign for which the names and/or addresses of the donors couldn’t be confirmed in public records. One unidentified individual listed as contributing $2,800 said he never gave that much. The work address for the man, who said Santos was a friend, was listed as a hand sanitizer business that reportedly only employed him and Santos.

And not only is Santos’s friend calling the donations into question; so too is his family. Mother Jones now reports that Santos’s sister Tiffany, who was listed as contributing more than $5,000 despite facing eviction around the same time, declined to confirm whether she actually gave the money. Another unnamed relative listed as giving two donations of $2,900 flatly disputed that, saying, “I’m dumbfounded.”

It is illegal to give to a candidate using someone else’s identity.

Among other Santos donors are the cousin of a sanctioned Russian oligarch who was also a confidant of former president Donald Trump, and, according to the Daily Beast, an Italian national who pleaded guilty to smuggling undocumented immigrants into the United States, among other convictions.

The latter man, Rocco Oppedisano, is reportedly related to the family that runs the aforementioned Italian restaurant where the campaign made those $199.99 payments. It is illegal to accept donations from foreign nationals, and the Daily Beast reports that court and property records show Oppedisano was stripped of his permanent-resident status after a 2009 arrest.

The dubious outside groups

Separately, the New York Times has reported on the opaque efforts of a group that billed itself to donors as an “independent expenditure” organization devoted to supporting Santos’s campaign, RedStone Strategies.

Despite those solicitations, the Federal Election Commission has no record of such a group. Super PACs are required to file with the FEC and disclose their donors, and this group has not done so. And even if it were a legitimate entity, the group’s description of itself in a donor email as a 501(c)(4) and as devoting “all its resources” to electing Santos would seem to fly in the face of a prohibition on such social welfare groups spending most of their money on elections.

Santos reportedly participated in at least one solicitation for the group, and he is affiliated with a similarly-named Florida business called RedStone Strategies LLC, which lists Santos’s business and one of his business partners as its managing officers.

And then there’s the matter of the other outside group, Rise NY. It’s a state PAC started by Santos’s sister and his now-former campaign treasurer Nancy Marks (who just left that position). State law says such groups can contribute to candidates and authorized committees, but they cannot help campaigns in other ways. Yet the Times notes the group, on social media, claimed to have organized demonstrations and voter registration events, and that it made payments to employees of Santos’s campaign.

The self-funding

Perhaps the biggest question looming over Santos: how he reported spending around $700,000 of his own money on his 2022 campaign, after reporting just $55,000 in income during his previous campaign in 2020.

Last week, Santos’s campaign changed how it disclosed these loans — changes that some interpreted to imply that Santos was now saying the loans came from someone else, which would very likely be illegal. Given the other discrepancies in the filings, though, it seems likely that the change resulted from an error.

Still, if it was an error, it hasn’t been corrected. And there is little evidence that Santos’s company suddenly became as successful as he claimed.

Santos has answered evasively when asked about the matter, suggesting the money was his and resulted from a windfall for his company — but avoiding saying that quite so directly.

More on George Santos

Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) was elected to Congress in November and faces calls to resign due to a long list of falsehoods he has told. Here is the list of Republicans calling for George Santos’ resignation.

What has Santos lied about? Santos fabricated much of his biography. The list of untruths is long, here are few: