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Rep. George Santos of New York calls federal fraud charges a witch hunt

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Representative George Santos says he's not guilty and that he will not resign.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The first-term New York lawmaker appeared in court yesterday to face multiple criminal charges. Now, Santos has admitted that a lot of the resume he touted on his way to getting elected was made up. Now, authorities say he used some of his stories to make money, collecting bogus unemployment claims and campaign contributions for his own benefit.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann was there and joins us now. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: How does Santos defend himself?

MANN: Well, he says these federal charges are a witch hunt. Though I have to say, Steve, he didn't offer an explanation for why federal prosecutors would single him out. These charges are incredibly detailed, alleging Santos used campaign cash to pay for personal luxuries like designer clothes. They say Santos bilked New York's unemployment system during the pandemic while he had a job. But speaking outside the courthouse, Santos said he plans to prove the charges are all false.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE SANTOS: I will get to clear my name. I don't understand where the government's getting their information, but I will present my facts.

MANN: There was a big contrast between Santos' tone in the courtroom, where he was soft-spoken and polite, and those fiery interactions outside where he promised to fight.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note he is still a member of Congress. And will he continue casting votes and, also, by the way, campaigning for reelection?

MANN: Yeah, that's right. Just like other lawmakers from both parties who face criminal charges, it doesn't disqualify Santos from serving. He says he's headed back to Washington this week to cast key votes. One wrinkle is that Santos was released on a $500,000 bond with pretty severe restrictions on his travel. He had to give up his passport. He's supposed to remain in Washington or New York City. If he travels anywhere else, he has to get permission from the government. He's really unpopular in his district, but he said yesterday he thinks he can win back voters' trust.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANTOS: Like I said - I've asked many times - I want to be judged by the work I do in the body, and I stay committed to that.

MANN: But this reelection effort, it's a really tough road if he beats these charges. Remember, he also lied about his career, his education, his family's background - pretty much everything.

INSKEEP: What are his constituents saying?

MANN: Well, many are angry. I spoke yesterday with Joshua Sauvernan, who came to the courthouse to protest against Santos, and I asked why he was there.

JOSHUA SAUVERNAN: Because the person that my district sent to Congress is a complete and total fraud.

MANN: What do you think about the fact that he has been laid with 13 criminal charges?

SAUVERNAN: I'm not surprised by it. And quite frankly, I'm expecting more charges.

MANN: And there are still other investigations underway into Santos' behavior - one by a local district attorney, another by the House Ethics Committee in Washington.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note, it's extraordinary that a lawmaker would tell so many obvious lies, but it is not really that unusual for one lawmaker or another to be under investigation or under indictment. Does this particular charge against a very junior lawmaker matter much?

MANN: Well, George Santos is actually a key vote in this narrowly divided Congress, and so far, Republican leaders are sticking by him. But this scandal has the potential to drag down other Republicans here in New York who did really well in last year's midterms. Remember, the Republican Party's winning message in New York has been a tough stance on crime, and now one of their most visible members is serving on the House floor after being arrested. And Santos is scheduled to be back here in court next month.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.