January 28, 2023

Late in the 2020 election cycle, one regular Republican donor said they were getting bombarded with messages asking them to contribute to a New York congressional candidate named George Santos. The donor, who asked that their name be withheld since they are not a public person, checked in with then-Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), who, at the time, was representing a House district adjacent to the one where Santos was running on Long Island. 

“I did reach out to Lee Zeldin and I said, ‘You know, who’s this George Santos? I’m getting nonstop phone calls, texts, everything,’” the donor recounted in a conversation with TPM. 

According to the donor, Zeldin noted Santos was a “gay Republican.” Those are two of the aspects of the story Santos presented on the campaign trail that actually seem to be true. The donor was glad to offer Santos their support. 

“That kind of diversity for the party, I thought, would be good,” said the donor. “So, the next time someone from his campaign called, which was probably very soon after, I gave my credit card over the phone for a $1,000 donation.”

Santos lost the 2020 race soon afterward. However, the donor’s brief interaction with Santos’ first unsuccessful House bid was the beginning of a long odyssey that they said resulted in more than $15,000 in false credit card charges. Some of that money inexplicably went to the campaign of Tina Forte, another Republican congressional candidate in New York whose campaign had links to Santos. 

“It’s just wrong on so many levels,” the donor said. 

Santos and Forte did not respond to requests for comment on this story. His campaign finances have come under scrutiny amid revelations that he lied about his resume en route to winning a House seat last year. 

TPM’s analysis of reports Santos’ campaign filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) showed extensive irregularities including charges for clothing and meals, cash totals that didn’t add up, improperly labeled contributions, and donations that went over the legal limit. Those issues raised red flags with the FEC and resulted in a complaint filed by a watchdog group on Monday. 

Daniel Weiner, a former FEC senior counsel who is currently the director of the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, suggested the problems with Santos’ election operation were a product of “a Wild West era in campaign fundraising.” Even in that context, Weiner suggested the issues in Santos’ filings pushed the envelope. 

“The Wild West campaign finance environment generally sometimes leads people to forget that there are rules and you can’t just skirt all of them. It’s a good example of a sort of culture of cutting corners and bending the rules that has developed that’s unfortunate,” said Weiner. “In this case, the Santos campaign appears to have taken it to an extreme in several instances.”

FEC records show the donor who spoke to TPM gave at least $2,000 to the Santos campaign between March and June of 2021. According to the donor, they did not intend to make any contributions following their initial donation for Santos’ 2020 run. When they saw the charges on their credit card statement, the donor reached out to WinRed, a platform for Republican donations that was used by the Santos campaign. 

“I contacted WinRed donor support because that was listed as the merchant on my Amex statement. That was a whole months-long process because they couldn’t find these transactions even though they were listed as the merchant,” the donor said. “They had no record of them in their system.” 

The donor provided TPM with copies of emails they exchanged with WinRed’s donor support team. In one of the messages, the donor indicated they were not getting any response from the Santos campaign. In another, a customer service representative said WinRed was unable to find any record of the two $1,000 contributions. 

“I searched our system for donations using the information you provided and was unable to find the donation you asked about,” the donor support representative said. 

In that message, WinRed asked the donor to provide personal information including their email, the last four digits of their credit card, and the charge ID number from their credit card statement. 

“Ultimately, they refunded two of them in June, but I had to provide them my credit card number and address,” the donor said. “I had to give them all the information that they should have had from processing the transactions in order for them to refund me.”

Santos’ filings with the FEC also indicate the donor was refunded $2,000 on June 4 of that year. However, getting the refunds wasn’t the end of the saga for the donor. 

As they were working with WinRed, the donor said new charges began to appear on their American Express card. They provided TPM with copies of their credit card statements showing four more charges from the Santos campaign between June and July of 2021. 

These four new charges were for three different amounts that added up to $7,400. Two of the charges came on the same day. Combined with the two contributions that were refunded, the credit card statements provided by the donor indicates they were charged a total of $9,400 by the Santos campaign during the 2022 cycle. That amount is well over the legal limit for individual contributions in a given election cycle, which is $5,800. It is also, the donor said, not anything they intended to give. 

Weiner, the campaign finance expert, suggested that, if the donor was indeed charged without authorization, it would be almost unheard of.

“To charge a credit card on file without a donor’s permission is highly extraordinary,” Weiner said. “If in fact anyone’s credit card was intentionally charged without their permission, that would be a crime, and you’re not really in campaign finance law land anymore, you’re in criminal law land, because that’s illegal.” 

According to the donor, two more charges for $2,900 showed up in August and September of 2021. However, this time, for reasons that remain unclear, the money went to the Forte campaign rather than the Santos campaign. The donor was baffled. 

“I had never even heard of her,” the donor said of Forte. 

Forte challenged prominent progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) last year and lost by more than 44 points. As with Santos, her campaign finance reports were littered with irregularities including travel expenses, meals, and donations attributed to “anonymous.” The filings show Forte was paid more than $14,000 by her own campaign for “expense reimbursement.” Three charges that added up to more than $1,500 and were purportedly for “Digital Consulting” went to a business identified only as “Paramount.” Rather than a consulting firm, the company’s address appears to correspond with the Paramount Hotel in Times Square. 

Weiner characterized the money Forte was paid from her own campaign as “a reporting issue” due to the large amount of the payments and the fact there were no details about the underlying expenses. 

“A $14,000 reimbursement without an explanation is not appropriate,” Weiner explained. “Above $200, you have to give an accounting of what the expense was and you have to retain receipts.”

Along with these issues, Forte’s campaign had multiple links to Santos. Forte’s FEC filings show her campaign’s initial treasurer was DeVaughn Dames, one of Santos’ business associates

Both Dames and Santos worked at Harbor City, a Florida-based investment firm that was described in an April 2021 Securities and Exchange Commission complaint as a “classic ponzi scheme” that allegedly duped investors out of millions. Dames is also linked to a mysterious business that Santos has described as his “family firm” and primary source of income. During 2021, Forte’s campaign made 76 payments totaling over $110,000 to “RED STRATEGIES USA, LLC.” Records show that company was managed and controlled by firms controlled by Santos, Dames, two other Harbor City executives, and Nancy Marks, who was Santos’ campaign treasurer. Dames and Marks have not responded to requests for comment. 

In total, the donor said they were charged $15,200 for contributions to the Santos and Forte campaigns that they did not make. These charges all appeared to come through WinRed, which was widely adopted by Republicans in the Trump era. 

WinRed did not respond to a request for comment. The company’s fundraising practices have previously sparked allegations that its fundraising emails automatically enrolled unwitting donors into making recurring payments. 

However, the donor does not believe they accidentally were charged for recurring contributions since many of the charges were for different amounts. The donor said they received a full refund after making a fraud complaint to their credit card company, American Express. They showed TPM credit card statements showing the refunded charges. 

This donor apparently isn’t the only one who felt like they were ripped off by the Santos and Forte campaigns. 

Denise Robichaud, a 75-year-old retiree, told TPM that she attempted to make a small donation of $25 to the Forte campaign last year. However, after setting up the transaction, Robichaud received a confirmation that she had been charged a whopping $5,800, the maximum allowable political contribution for a federal candidate in a given election cycle. 

“I freaked out at the time,” Robichaud said. “I was on the phone saying, ‘Hello, you stupid idiots. That’s not what I’m donating. … Oh my god, don’t you do this to me.’”

Campaign finance reports that the Forte campaign filed with the FEC show that Robichaud was charged $5,800 on Aug. 24 of last year. According to the records, Robichaud received a refund the following day.  

The report indicates Robichaud’s donation was processed by WinRed. Robichaud is also confident that she did not make any kind of mistake with the donation as she has extensive experience with online giving. FEC records show Robichaud has made dozens of donations to Republicans via WinRed in the past two years. Prior to the $5,800 to the Forte campaign that was refunded, none of Robichaud’s contributions were for more than $50. 

“I don’t have $5,800 to give her,” Robichaud said of Forte.  “My main thing all through those election things was twenty-five bucks. …  I would never have sent her that amount of money.” 

While Robichaud got all of her money back, she said the experience soured her on making political donations.

“I don’t have a whole lot of money,” Robichaud explained. “I won’t ever do it again. … I just won’t donate to a campaign again.”  

Another donor was left with a different kind of issue after raising money for Santos. 

Cathy Soref, a Long Island-based entrepreneur and philanthropist who regularly gives to Republicans, told TPM she was introduced to Santos by his campaign treasurer, Nancy Marks. Soref was intrigued by his diverse background, including his family’s roots in Brazil and purported connections to the Holocaust that were later revealed to be among his many embellishments

“George seemed to be the perfect New York candidate,” Soref said. “He was gay — and a gay conservative for New York, I thought that would be great.”

Soref said her family “hosted George several times and he kind of became a pal.” She was livid to learn he had fabricated much of his backstory.

“We’ve all been boondoggled like you cannot believe,” Soref said.  

She feels like she was taken advantage of after introducing Santos to other donors. 

“I’m having to go ahead and, you know, mend fences. Fortunately these are all people who have been friends of mine for 35 years. They know me,” said Soref. “All of them have said, ‘It’s not your fault. You don’t have to apologize.’ You know, we were all duped. It’s gross.” 

Soref described herself as “furious” about Santos’ lies. She hasn’t tried to call the congressman, and, if she were to confront him, Soref might react with more than words. 

“I’m so furious about this with George. I mean, it would be one of the situations where if I saw him, I would slap his face,” Soref said. “Or, you know, like, poke him in the tummy. I mean, you know, until he’s knocked down.”

This article has been updated.

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