George Santos, the son of Brazilian immigrants who became a member of the 118th U.S. Congress: caught telling fib after fib Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP
An avalanche of fibs
An interview with George Santos before his lies came to light
Translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux
The story took place in New York, in the summer of 2021 – as told by George Anthony Devolder dos Santos, better known as George Santos. He had just walked out of a commercial building after a business engagement when he was intercepted by two muggers on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th St. The criminals took his watch, his briefcase, and found time to demand that he hand over his shoes as well. “At three in the afternoon,” Santos says – and adds, “And before you ask, they weren’t black; they were white, as a matter of fact.”
Fifth Avenue is one of the busiest thoroughfares in New York. Every three hours, 27,000 pedestrians cross the block between 54th and 55th St., which is home to the five-star hotel The Peninsula and the luxury jewelers Harry Winston and Breguet. As if that weren’t enough, New York is one of the most heavily surveilled cities in the world: there are 25,500 security cameras watching over squares, streets, and avenues, counting devices set up in public and private spaces.
In spite of the crowds, and in spite of the surveillance apparatus, what happened to Santos seemed more of a piece with the crimes committed in the poorest corners of the world. “And nobody does a thing. It’s surreal, what we’re going through here.” His two assailants fled without being bothered by the police – or anybody, for that matter.
Santos’s mugging in the heart of Manhattan was one of the remarkable stories he told in an exclusive interview to me and Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, director of research at Rádio Novelo. The conversation was conducted in Portuguese on December 7th, 2022, shortly after his successful campaign for a seat in Congress and before it became evident that the congressman-elect had woven an elaborate and often baffling web of lies. The interview, conducted by piauí in a partnership with Rádio Novelo, is now available to listeners on all podcast platforms in Episode 9 of “Rádio Novelo Apresenta,” entitled “Castelo de Cartas”.
In the interview, the newly minted Republican congressman spoke about his family’s origins. Santos recounted that his maternal grandparents were Ukrainian Jews who fled Nazi persecution, moving first to Belgium, then to Brazil. As a staunch opponent of illegal immigration to the United States, he took pride in the fact that his parents had arrived legally in the early 1980s, with work visas. Santos compared the situation to the beginnings of a romantic relationship: “Just imagine starting out a relationship with a lie, or doing something wrong, right?”
His father, Gercino Antonio dos Santos Jr., was a painter; his mother, Fatima Alzira Caruso Horta Devolder, who died in 2016, worked as a cleaning woman, cook, and nanny in the United States. Santos was born in 1988 in Queens – which then, as now, was home to a robust community of Brazilian immigrants – and recalled growing up in a windowless basement apartment. From the basement on up, however, his story followed the triumphal arc of the self-made man, culminating in the electoral victory that made him a member of the 118th United States Congress this past November.
In the interview, which was conducted over video conference, Santos, with a smile playing on his lips, the sort that tends to appear when the speaker is about to say something positive about himself, revealed that he had decided to donate his entire salary as a congressman – $174,000 – to four NGOs, although he declined to provide their names.
The gesture, magnanimous in its own right, looks even grander in light of the fact that members of the House of Representatives are prohibited from holding outside employment during their terms. That meant that Santos, at age 34, had to have amassed enough money to do without his congressional remuneration. In our conversation, he said he would live off “dividends and distributions” and credited his prosperity to having studied economics and business administration at Baruch College and having cut his teeth at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, two of the glossiest financial groups to grace Wall Street. When asked for more details about these ample dividends and the origin of his wealth, Santos laughed. “Indiscreet question. Let’s just say that we live comfortably nowadays.”
“We” means Santos, his husband, the pharmacist Matheus Gerard, age 26, who hails from Pelotas, Rio Grande do Sul, and the couple’s four dogs: Anastacia, Aurora, Electra, and Elsa. The family, he told us, lived in Whitestone, which he described as an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Queens. When asked jokingly if the dogs were named after drag queens, Santos bristled. “Hey, now. Aurora is from Sleeping Beauty; Elsa, from Frozen; Anastacia, from the movie of the same name; and Electra is the daughter of Poseidon.” Santos is openly gay and decidedly conservative. He supports bans on public-school sex education before age 12.
The interview, not unlike a conversation with supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro, was riddled with fake news. “There are a total of three hundred drag shows per day in New York City schools,” Santos offered at one point. This was far from the mark. In the first semester of 2021, one report identified 49 performances – an average of one every four days, across a total of 1,851 schools.
Soon came another eyebrow-raising number: Santos claimed that 20,000 women in New York State had been able to access “on-demand” third-trimester abortions in 2021. Thomson-DeVeaux and I challenged him on this point. In the United States, less than 1% of abortions take place in the third trimester, and are authorized only when the patient’s life or health is in danger. Given an average of 100,000 abortions per year in the state, one might estimate that the number of late-term abortions is closer to 1,000.
When confronted, Santos asked us to go to the website for the New York State Department of Health – which we had already done during the conversation. At this point, apparently having spent his ammunition, he said that he would have come better prepared if we had let him know we were going to talk about abortion.
Everything changed on December 19th, when The New York Times published an article demolishing Santos’s fabrications. According to the paper, he lied about his family’s origins (his mother’s parents were born in Brazil), his education (he never studied at Baruch College), and his work history (Goldman Sachs and Citigroup deny that he ever worked there). He also lied about having founded an animal rescue charity that saved over 2,400 dogs and 280 cats (there is no record of the existence of his NGO, which was supposedly called Friends of Pets United).(1)
The untruths didn’t end there. Santos had falsely claimed that four of his employees died in the mass shooting at the gay club Pulse, in Orlando, in June of 2016. In his official biography and elsewhere, he had said that his mother was a successful executive in the financial industry and that, as such, she was in one of the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001.
The piece in the Times also raised questions about Santos’s alleged fortune. In 2020, during his first run for office, he reported annual earnings of $55,000 and declared that he owned no companies. In 2022, however, he declared a share in the Devolder Organization, a consulting firm based in Florida and opened in May of 2021, which supposedly managed $80 million in assets and paid him an annual salary of $750,000. Surprisingly, the organization didn’t reveal any clients. Santos also personally donated $700,000 to his own campaign. This sudden affluence is even stranger in the wake of the New York Times‘ documentation of Santos being evicted multiple times in recent years for failure to pay rent.
In the interviews he gave since entering public life, Santos never mentioned having lived in Brazil, even for a short period. This may be because the period in question coincided with the years he was supposed to have been studying at Baruch.
What we now know is that in 2008, at age 19, he spent some time with his mother and sister Tiffany in Niterói, just across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, staying in the modest home of George’s maternal grandmother, Rosa. That was the year that Santos committed check fraud. On June 17th, he spent R$2,144 (around $1,000, corrected for inflation) at The Salt, a multi-brand luxury retailer specializing in imported fashion. He split the bill on two checks and signed with the name Délio da Câmara da Costa Alemão. When the store tried to cash the checks, it emerged that the account had been closed after Alemão had died. “I called the numbers on the back of the checks and I went to the address, but there was no Délio. I was completely desperate,” says Carlos Bruno de Castro Simões, the sales representative who served Santos. “And then I got a lifeline.”
A few days later, Santos’s then-boyfriend, Thiago Almeida Ramalho, showed up at The Salt with a pair of Ecko sneakers, wanting to exchange them. “He might not have known about the check fraud and just went in, innocently enough, to swap them out,” says Simões. When told about the bounced check, Ramalho denied having any involvement. Simões, who now owns a Japanese restaurant in Copacabana, filed a police report at the 77th Precinct in Niterói. The owner of The Salt, not keen on taking the loss, took it out of Simões’s paycheck instead.
Santos and his mother were called in to give statements. On November 18th, 2010, she told the police that the checkbook, which her son had stolen from her bag, belonged to an elderly man she had been taking care of. That same day, Santos confessed to the crime and said that, after having written a few checks, he threw the checkbook down a sewer drain. At the precinct, he identified himself as a teacher and reported having dual citizenship in the United States and Brazil. The Rio de Janeiro public prosecutor’s office brought charges against him, and, in September 2011, the case was taken up by a court. Three months later, a court official tried to serve Santos, but he couldn’t be found. The sales representative began looking for him on Orkut, the most popular social network at the time, and Tony Devolder – the name Santos went by – wrote back: “I know I messed up and all but I want to pay.” The dialogue is included in the case file. piauí sent WhatsApp messages requesting interviews to Santos’s sister Tiffany and his father, but both accounts responded by blocking the number.
It’s unclear how long Santos stayed in Niterói. At least in 2008, the year of the crime, and 2010, when he gave statements to police, he was in Brazil. These dates, meanwhile, contradict what the congressman-elect said in his interview to Rádio Novelo: “I’ve been in this line of work [in the financial market] for nearly fourteen years.” Fourteen years ago, he was buying clothes with stolen checks. After the fresh attention brought to the case, the public prosecutor’s office has announced they will be reopening the charges.
George Santos was elected to represent New York’s third district, which includes parts of Queens and Long Island. An hour away from Manhattan, Long Island exudes sleek prosperity. It was there that F. Scott Fitzgerald set The Great Gatsby (1925), his novel about a mysterious millionaire who passed himself off as a sophisticated Oxford alum but was actually a pathological liar with a newfound fortune fed by smuggling.
The Jewish community in Long Island today stands at around 300,000 people. While he acknowledged being a practicing Catholic, Santos made a loud point during his campaign – likely with one eye on this potential base – of mentioning that he was the descendant of Holocaust survivors. piauí spoke to Fábio Koifman, a historian who has studied immigration to Brazil for the past 25 years and was able to reconstruct part of Santos’s family tree. Santos’s maternal great-grandfather, Leonardo Antônio Horta Devolder, was a Belgian engineer who moved to Brazil between 1885 and 1890. “In Brazil, he married Maria Victória da Fonseca, who was born in 1879, in Niterói,” says Koifman, who teaches at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ) and is the author, among other works, of Quixote nas Trevas: O Embaixador Souza Dantas e os Refugiados do Nazismo. Santos’s grandparents were all born in Brazil.
On both sides of his family, Santos has aunts, uncles, and cousins who have been living in the United States since the 1980s. These relations chipped in to help fund his run for Congress; according to the Federal Election Commission, his father made two contributions at the maximum limit of $2,900, once for the primaries and once in the general election, as did his uncle Gesio dos Santos and his aunt Victoria Devolder, who identify on the form as “painter” and “retired.” The family donated a total of $17,400.
piauí followed up with Santos to request the police report on the mugging on Fifth Avenue, but has yet to receive a response. During his campaign, Santos emphasized rising crime levels as one of his main issues. piauí also requested immigration records for his parents, in order to verify whether they entered the United States with work visas, but once again got no reply. One lie, however, could be pinned down. In the interview, Santos said that he had never experienced homophobia in his life, even within the Republican Party, but that he had been banned from participating in the New York City Pride Parade. When asked, the parade’s organizers quickly denied having ever barred him.
After the New York Times exposé, even more lies and prevarications came to light. At the same time, true elements of his life (carefully hidden until now) also rose to the surface. According to The Daily Beast, between 2012 and September 2019, Santos was married to a Brazilian woman by the name of Uadla Santos Vieira Santos, a relationship he had never mentioned until then. In conversation with piauí, he recalled having had heterosexual relationships. Later on, the New York Times showed that the Republican Party had drawn up a report on then-candidate Santos that warned of the potential for public humiliation if he were to continue, given a resume divorced from reality; some raised questions as to whether the marriage had been for immigration purposes. Marrying someone in order to obtain a green card in the United States, often through payment to an American national, is a federal crime.
Santos told us that he was the embodiment of the “American dream,” having been born in a working-class family and risen through the ranks of the financial sector. To friends and acquaintances, he claimed to have held a variety of professions, including a stint at the major Brazilian network Globo. But as for his work history, what seems clear thus far is that in 2011, when an officer of the court was trying to locate him in Niterói, he was working as a customer service representative at Dish Network in Queens. In November 2019, he was working at a Manhattan-based investment firm, LinkBridge. Recently, Santos confessed that he had “embellished” his resume, but denied having committed check fraud in Niterói – despite having confessed at the precinct.
Fantástico, a weekly program on Globo, the network where Santos once claimed to have worked, has since aired interviews with an ex-boyfriend and a former friend in which they, among other things, recalled Santos not making good on loans.
Santos was not, by any measure, the first politician to make lying a pillar of his communications strategy. Former Rio de Janeiro governor Sérgio Cabral claimed that he only used an official helicopter on business, but a photographer caught two of his maids, members of his family, and their dog Juquinha embarking on a taxpayer-funded weekend trip to a beach house. João Doria swore up and down that he would never abandon his post as São Paulo mayor to run for governor, prior to doing just that. Former São Paulo mayor and governor Paulo Maluf guaranteed that he had no business in Switzerland before being arrested for funneling public funds to his Swiss bank accounts.
The difference is that Santos lied to get elected, and the others lied after they had been elected. His lies, meanwhile, got the traction they did in part because the press in the United States, as elsewhere, is hobbled on several fronts. A dearth of funds and reporters at local and regional outlets means that authorities and politicians are often given something close to free rein. One of hundreds of candidates to Congress, then, may fairly easily escape the scrutiny of major papers, which have tended to focus their resources on national coverage – looking to Washington or Brasília but neglecting their own backyard. The belated exception was the New York Times, which opened the floodgates with a simple examination of Santos’s life.
Well-executed journalism brings immediate, powerful results. Santos was sworn in on January 7th with a tattered reputation and a minefield ahead of him. His campaign spending will be the subject of federal and state investigations, in which the most pressing question is how he was able to donate $700,000 to his own campaign. Santos also may have used campaign funds to pay for personal expenses, which would violate election law. His own accounting shows that he disbursed $11,000 over four months to a company called Cleaner 123, in a line item listed as “apartment rental for staff.” The address listed for Cleaner 123 was a house in Huntington, Long Island. Neighbors reported that the location was, for all intents and purposes, Santos’s residence.
The fact that Santos lied about his resume may not dislodge him from Congress, but violations of campaign finance law could lead him to jail. Hiding the source of campaign donations is an offense that carries a maximum five-year sentence. Santos’s Democratic colleagues from New York, Daniel Goldman and Ritchie Torres, have filed a request for an investigation with the House Ethics Committee.
As if all this weren’t enough, Santos managed to create another problem for himself. During the drawn-out haggling over the position of Speaker of the House, Santos flashed a gesture associated with white supremacists, making a circle with his thumb and index finger of his left hand and raising the other three, in a move used to signify the letters W and P of “white power.” Santos has yet to comment on the photographs that immortalized the moment.
Days after being sworn in, under pressure from the media, society, and his colleagues in Congress, Santos tweeted: “I will NOT resign!” Fellow Republican Joseph Cairo, however, has broken ranks and called on him to resign. In a press conference, he listed off a few of the lies Santos had told him, one of which elicited a chuckle from those present. Cairo said Santos had shared stories of his feats as a star player on the volleyball team at Baruch College – the school where he never set foot.
(1) Back in November 2020, in his first interview with piauí, George Santos also lied about his education and work history: https://piaui.folha.uol.com.br/391403-2/.
Repórter da piauí, publicou A Beleza da Vida: A Biografia de Marco Antonio de Biaggi (Abril)
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