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The Dog Died
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The Dog Died

Curious George and the limits of populist grift.

Rep. George Santos (R-NY) leaves the U.S. Capitol on January 12, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.)

What’s the funniest political scandal you can imagine?

Like Han Solo, I can imagine quite a bit.

Imagine, for instance, that a former president from one party spent months under investigation for improperly retaining classified documents—only for the current president from the other party to get caught with classified documents stashed away too. In his garage. Next to his ‘Vette.

Pretty funny.

How about this? A congressman compulsively sends pictures of his crotch to women chat buddies. But he gets caught sexting with an underaged girl, then the feds start investigating, and before you know it the classified material on his laptop ends up blowing his party’s chances of winning the presidential election.

Oh, and the congressman’s name is “Weiner.”

A bit over the top, admittedly, but still funny. Right up until the chain of events it sets in motion nearly ends in an authoritarian coup.

I can top both of those scenarios, though. Imagine if an illegal immigrant got elected to Congress.

As a Republican.

It wouldn’t be as funny if he got elected as a Democrat. No doubt many liberals who prefer open borders would be fine with having an “undocumented” representative in the federal legislature, whatever the Constitution might have to say about it.

But it’d be hilarious if the party of The Wall, whose loudest voices disdain even legal immigration, ended up unwittingly sending an illegal alien to Washington.

Perhaps reality has something special in store for us once again.

There’s no evidence that George Santos isn’t a United States citizen. Circumstantial evidence suggests that he was indeed born in Queens, New York, in 1988, as he’s claimed. But he also told former co-workers that he was born in Brazil. And then there’s the curious matter of Santos, a gay man, having been married to a woman between 2012 and 2019. If he wasn’t a U.S. citizen at the time, he could have gained citizenship from that marriage—although, if he did, it’s unlikely that he would have gained it in time to satisfy the Constitution’s seven-year eligibility requirement to be elected to Congress in 2022.

The GOP ending up with its very own “where’s the birth certificate?” scandal a decade after demagoguing Barack Obama would also be very funny, come to think of it.

Reporters are doubtless trying to run down the facts about Santos’ citizenship as I write this. As amusing as it would be if he turned out to be illegal, it would also be a small mercy to Kevin McCarthy and the House Republican caucus. They’d hate to lose another seat while managing a narrow majority, but Santos losing his eligibility would solve their dilemma of what to do with him at a moment when he’s been found guilty of nothing more than lying.

Until that dilemma is solved, there’ll be more political pain for the party. Because as funny as the Santos saga could get, and as funny as it started out being, it’s taken a darker turn lately.

When I wrote about him in December, after the initial lies about his ancestry and education were exposed, I allowed that Santos’ sins might differ from those of other politicians as a matter of degree, not of kind. The current president of the United States is a known fabulist. The current senior senator from Connecticut lied about having served in Vietnam and won three statewide elections anyway, the most recent by 15 points. American voters have a high tolerance for politicians whose embellishments inflate their own reputation without (directly) hurting anyone else. That’s how Santos’ lies about his biography looked—initially.

Then we found out that the dog died.

On Tuesday night unspooled the tragic tale of Richard Osthoff, a homeless veteran whose service dog, Sapphire, was diagnosed with a stomach tumor in 2016. Osthoff couldn’t afford the treatments, but a veterinary technician put him in touch with a local pet charity, Friends of Pets United, run by a man named Anthony Devolder. 

“Anthony Devolder” happens to be one of the many aliases George Santos has used in the past.

At various times he’s also used “George Devolder,” “Anthony Santos,” and even “Anthony Zabrovsky.” Santos has claimed that his maternal grandparents were named “Zabrovsky” and changed their surname in order to escape religious persecution in Europe during the Holocaust, but that too appears to be an egregious lie. One of his former roommates had a different explanation for why Santos liked the name “Zabrovsky” for his charitable endeavors.

The man Osthoff was in contact with about Sapphire called himself Anthony Devolder. Devolder went about setting up a GoFundMe page to raise money for the dog’s treatments and netted more than $3,000 from it, enough to cover the cost.

You know where this is going.

When Osthoff asked for the funds, Devolder gave him the runaround, initially directing him to a different veterinarian than the one Osthoff used for Sapphire. That vet said he couldn’t operate on the tumor. When Osthoff complained to Devolder, Devolder told him that he’d use the funds to help other dogs instead. When Osthoff complained again, Devolder offered to take Sapphire for an ultrasound himself—but only on the condition that Osthoff not accompany them. Then he stopped answering Osthoff’s phone calls.

The GoFundMe page disappeared. Osthoff never got the funds. Sapphire died in January 2017.

When Semafor contacted George Santos about the story, he replied, “Fake. No clue who this is.” But there are receipts, sort of.

There’s also a Facebook page posted by “George Devolder” in 2016 seeking money for Sapphire’s treatment. 

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday night, Osthoff said he’d been watching news coverage of Santos in December and couldn’t shake the feeling that something about the soon-to-be congressman seemed familiar. Then, a week ago, he heard a reporter ask Santos, “What’s your name today? Is it Anthony Devolder or is it George Santos?” The penny dropped. “I was sick,” Osthoff told Erin Burnett.

That may be the single worst grift Santos has ever been accused of running. But it’s not, by a long shot, the only one.

Some grifts are small, relatively speaking. Although they’re not so small to the people victimized by them.

A Brazilian woman told local TV that she traveled with Santos to the U.S. in 2011 and he ended up stealing thousands from her bank accounts as well as her jewelry, ultimately leading her to lose her home. That might be true or it might not, but it’s not the first time he’s been accused of theft. Years-old criminal charges are still pending against him in Brazil, in fact, after he allegedly stole someone’s checkbook and wrote checks in the owner’s name.

There may be other, more ambitious grifts involving campaign finance laws.

The New York Times has heard of Republican donors being solicited by a super PAC called RedStone Strategies that was affiliated with Santos. Super PACs are required to register with the FEC, but the agency has no record of any such entity. One donor says he was approached on behalf of RedStone by George Santos himself, a no-no under FEC regulations that prohibit coordination between super PACs and the candidates they support. RedStone reportedly also sent emails pledging that all resources would be used to help elect Santos despite the fact that, as a supposed 501(c)(4) organization, federal law limits its spending on political candidates to 49.9 percent of its budget.

As for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans that Santos supposedly made to his campaign, they might be illegal, too. He was free to lend his campaign as much of his personal earnings as he liked, but it’s unclear how much of the funding came from his own money versus how much came from his company, the Devolder Organization. The feds prohibit such corporate funding schemes for fear that candidates will set up dummy companies to launder illicit campaign donations. “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,” one expert told the Daily Beast of Santos’ practices.

There’s reason to worry about where the money that bankrolled his run for Congress might be coming from. Evidence has emerged that he was still receiving payments from his former employer, Harbor City Capital, as late as April 2021. Harbor City has been accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of running a Ponzi scheme; curiously, Santos didn’t mention the payments on his most recent financial disclosure. There’s also reason to worry about where the money coming out of his campaign was going. Allegedly upward of $11,000 went toward “apartment rental for staff,” an unusual expenditure made more unusual by the fact that Santos appears to have been living in the apartment in question. (Campaigns can’t lawfully cover candidates’ personal expenses.) Some $40,000 was spent on air travel, an outrageous sum by congressional standards, and a suspicious number of lesser expenditures were listed on financial reports as totaling $199.99—coincidentally one cent short of the legal threshold requiring receipts to substantiate the expenditure.

Why, there’s even a Russian oligarch connection if you’re into that sort of thing.

A few days ago my colleague Kevin Williamson wondered whether what appears to be a Cartier Santos watch that now conspicuously adorns George Santos’ wrist is real or fake. It would be on-brand if it were fake, Kevin said, and while I take his point, I’m not sure I agree. When the smoke clears, we may find that it’s more on-brand for Santos to have leveraged his prodigious talent for fakery into scamming people out of very real riches. My guess is that’s a genuine Cartier, paid for in whole or in part with campaign donations.

Or, maybe, with the proceeds of the GoFundMe page for Sapphire.

It’s hard to believe that Santos isn’t guilty of some form of campaign finance flimflammery. FEC regulations are already nearly impossible for earnest, well-meaning amateurs to follow. Imagine a con artist with an alleged penchant for theft, both grand and petty, dutifully complying with them.

Building a small fortune by bilking wealthy rubes would amount to a very big lie, but we’re inured to big lies. We live in the golden age of grifting, after all: In the last 15 years alone we’ve navigated the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, the Elizabeth Holmes Theranos debacle, and whatever the hell happened with Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX. George Santos looks like small potatoes by comparison—although, in fairness, none of the other three managed to con their way into Congress.

We all “get” big lies. We understand the greed that motivates them even if we find it abhorrent. And we can all imagine easily enough how someone might rationalize fleecing the rich, especially if it’s done at arm’s length.

What we can’t understand is conning a homeless vet out of the money to treat his pet for cancer. That would be a small lie in the grand scheme of Santos’ con artistry but it’s the small lies that are the most disquieting. They’re intimate in a way that big scams aren’t, the difference between strangulation and sniper fire. Envision looking a struggling man in the eye while you pick his pocket of the money he needs to save his dog’s life.

Small lies are also gratuitous in a way that big scams aren’t. One of the distinguishing features of Santos’ lying is how often it extended to matters that wouldn’t obviously benefit him politically or financially. When he claimed falsely that he’d played volleyball for Baruch College, he threw in a bonus lie about having had his knees replaced afterward. He told people that he survived a brain tumor before becoming one of the first residents of New York City to contract COVID in March 2020. He said that his mother died on 9/11, then clarified that she died years later from cancer allegedly caused by the ash cloud on 9/11. In reality, per The Forward, she was in Brazil on 9/11.

Santos isn’t just a liar, he’s a weird liar. And, if the story about Osthoff and Sapphire is true, an unusually evil one.

Which makes me wonder if his obvious strategy to weather this storm by hiding behind MAGA will prove too much even for Trump voters.

It’s a shrewd play. Lacking any substantive justification for having invented an identity out of whole cloth, Santos is instead buddying up to Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene and positioning himself as the latest proud America First-er persecuted by a corrupt liberal media elite. The modern right has an almost bottomless tolerance for grifters who’ve made the right political enemies, as witnessed in their adulation of a man who’s scammed charities, aspiring realtors, and his own grassroots donors, to name a few. It’s no coincidence that misfits, grifters, and has-beens of every conservative stripe have glommed onto Trump in hopes of squeezing his base for cash and exposure. So long as you’re hurting the people you’re supposed to be hurting as a political actor, Republican activists will indulge you almost anything.

George Santos surely knows a mark when he sees one.

He may even have recognized a telltale flaw in the character of Washington Republicans, their habit of sitting back and waiting for someone else to solve their biggest political problems for them. “The Democrats are going to take care of the son of a b-tch for us,” Mitch McConnell allegedly said of Trump as Nancy Pelosi moved to impeach him after January 6. When that proved incorrect (with McConnell himself voting against conviction), Republicans bit their lips and hoped that the DOJ’s investigation of Trump for removing classified documents would take care of the son of a b-tch instead. That’s not looking so good lately. Soon they’ll turn to hoping that DeSantismania will sweep red America and take care of the son of a b-tch once and for all. Stay tuned.

They don’t care who cures their political headaches for them as long as they don’t have to risk anything by doing it themselves. The same was true when it came to disciplining Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar by removing them from their House committees, a task that fell to Democrats because Republicans refused to spark a fight on the right by doing it themselves. And the same was true, it turns out, with George Santos: The Times reported last week that local Republicans were onto him before the election and tried to get various party figures to move against him, but to no avail. “Republicans looked the other way” and “thought Democrats would do their dirty work for them,” the Times reported. Which sounds familiar.

Santos may be counting on the same cowardice to save him. Rather than expel him from the House or strip him of his committee assignments, which would anger populists keen to see the caucus “fight,” Kevin McCarthy is doubtless hoping that federal or state prosecutors will take care of the son of a b-tch for him.

Even so, I’m optimistic that House Republicans will eventually move against Santos. And not just because the story of Osthoff and Sapphire will make anyone who hears it want to vomit.

At some point, and maybe we’ve reached that point now, the political pain from having to defend Santos will exceed the political pain inflicted by the base on Republicans for agreeing with Democrats that he isn’t fit to serve. If he were the leader of the party, a figure in whom the right had invested all of its political hopes, the caucus would be obliged to defend him to the death. But he’s one of 435, a nobody, and while his seat means more in a narrowly divided Congress, the House majority doesn’t technically depend on it.

I have relatives in New York who voted twice for Trump who told me last weekend that they couldn’t understand giving Santos committee assignments until he’s cleared of wrongdoing. The lying was simply too much, and too weird; it’s absurd to have a man whose identity has been fabricated shaping national policy. Yet there was McCarthy on Tuesday, announcing that Santos would be joining, if you can believe it, the Small Business Committee. (He reportedly wanted a seat on the Financial Services Committee, the perfect spot for a man who once worked for an alleged Ponzi scheme and who may or may be involved in money laundering.) The most that could be said of it was that it wasn’t the most embarrassing committee assignment announced.

A few hours later, the story of Osthoff and his dog broke.

There’s no reason to think there won’t be more like it. Even a figure as dim as Kevin McCarthy will soon realize it, I think. And the sooner he quarantines Santos from the rest of the caucus, the more distance he and they will have in case a sadder scandal from his past comes out.

Or, I suppose, a funnier one.

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Nick Catoggio

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.