New York Congressman George Santos has entered a not guilty plea to charges alleging fraud and theft at heart of his political campaign.
The New York representative has been charged on a 13-count indictment, CNN reports.It includes seven counts of wire fraud, three counts of money laundering, one count of theft of public funds, and two counts of making materially false statements to the House of Representatives.
Santos had previously courted controversy for fabricating key parts of his life story,
The politician was taken into custody on Wednesday at a federal courthouse on Long Island and was expected to make an initial court appearance later in the day.
On Tuesday, Santos told the Associated Press he was unaware of the charges.
Santos, 34, was later released from custody on a $500,000 bond, about five hours after turning himself in to face charges of wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making false statements to Congress.
He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
The indictment alleges Santos induced supporters to donate to a company under the false pretense that the money would be used to support his campaign.
Instead, it claims, he used it for personal expenses, including luxury designer clothes and to pay off his credit cards. Santos also is accused of lying about his finances on congressional disclosure forms and applying for and receiving unemployment benefits while he was employed as regional director of an investment firm and running for Congress.
US Attorney Breon Peace said the indictment “seeks to hold Santos accountable for various alleged fraudulent schemes and brazen misrepresentations.” “Taken together, the allegations in the indictment charge Santos with relying on repeated dishonesty and deception to ascend to the halls of Congress and enrich himself,” Peace said.
Santos was elected to Congress last autumn after a campaign built partly on falsehoods, the Associated Press reports.
He told people he was a wealthy Wall Street dealmaker with a substantial real estate portfolio who had been a star volleyball player in college, among other things.
But in reality, he didn't work at the big financial firms he claimed had employed him, didn't go to college, and had struggled financially before his run for public office. Questions about his finances also surfaced.
In regulatory filings, Santos said he loaned his campaign and related political action committees more than $750,000 (£593,000), but it was unclear how he would have come into that kind of wealth so quickly after years in which he struggled to pay his rent and faced multiple eviction proceedings.
In a financial disclosure form, Santos reported making $750,000 a year from a family company, the Devolder Organization, but the charges unsealed on Wednesday allege that Santos never received that sum, nor the $1 to $5 million (£791,000 to £3.9m) in dividends he listed as coming from the firm. Santos has described the Devolder Organization as a broker for sales of luxury items like yachts and aircraft. The business was incorporated in Florida shortly after Santos stopped working as a salesman for a company accused by federal authorities of operating an illegal Ponzi scheme. Many of Santos' fellow New York Republicans called on him to resign after his history of fabrications was revealed. Some renewed their criticism of him as news of the criminal case spread.
“Listen, George Santos should have resigned in December. George Santos should have resigned in January. George Santos should have resigned yesterday. And perhaps he’ll resign today.
"But sooner or later, whether he chooses to or not, both the truth and justice will be delivered to him," said US Representative Marc Molinaro, a Republican representing parts of upstate New York. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said: “I think in America, you’re innocent till proven guilty."
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