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George Santos' backers include a migrant smuggler, a big Trump donor and the cousin of a sanctioned Russian oligarch

George Santos rejects growing calls to resign
Rep. George Santos remains defiant as more Republicans demand he resign 05:59

Newly elected Republican Congressman George Santos says he won't step down amid the chorus of calls for his resignation over lies he's told about his past, but experts say questions about his campaign finances could ultimately push him to reconsider.  

His Long Island constituents say Santos seemed to come out of nowhere when he defeated Democrat Robert Zimmerman for the seat previously held by now-retired Rep. Tom Suozzi, flipping a blue district to red. Now, the embattled congressman is facing probes by state and federal prosecutors, as well as complaints to the Federal Election Commission and a congressional ethics committee regarding his financial disclosures.

The questions surrounding Santos' personal and campaign finances have increased in the wake of his admission in an interview with the New York Post last month that he had "embellished" his work and education history during his congressional campaign. That admission came after The New York Times first reported it was unable to confirm key details about his background. 

George Santos in the House chamber
Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., waits for the start of a session in the House chamber as the House meets for the fourth day to elect a speaker, on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. Alex Brandon / AP

In interviews with CBS News, experts cited concerns about Santos' campaign finances — from controversial donors to questions about how his campaign handled those funds.

The donors

Santos' major backers include a migrant smuggler, an unlikely Trump donor, the cousin of a sanctioned Russian oligarch and a convicted felon. 

A controversial donor, who along with his apparent domestic partner gave a combined $34,500 to Santos, is Andrew Intrater, the CEO of a company which once had ties to a sanctioned Russian oligarch Intrater is the CEO of Sparrow Capital — an investment firm formerly known as Columbus Nova. Prior to the imposition of sanctions on the oligarch in 2018, it was listed in regulatory filings as an affiliate of Viktor Vekselberg's Renova Group, an aluminum, energy and telecom conglomerate. Intrater, who is Vekselberg's cousin, also served as a former director of Renova, according to a 2010 filing.

Intrater is a prolific donor to Republican candidates and causes — he paid $250,000 to attend former President Donald Trump's inauguration in January 2017. 

Intrater did not respond to a request for comment.

Intrater isn't the only prolific supporter of Trump-aligned Republican causes to make large donations to Santos. Cheng Gao, an immigrant from China with a Trump Tower apartment who also attended the former president's 2017 inauguration, gave $11,200 to Santos for his 2022 campaign. Gao could not be reached for comment. CBS News has not learned how either Intrater or Gao came to be Santos supporters. 

Meanwhile, Rocco Oppedisano's family was visibly involved with Santos's campaign. Reportedly an Italian national, the 54-year-old, donated $500 to a victory committee benefiting Santos' campaign in September according to FEC records. That donation to the son of Brazilian immigrants who campaigned as tough on immigration, drew attention after the Daily Beast reported that Oppedisano had pleaded guilty to smuggling undocumented migrants into the U.S. in 2019. A further review of Oppedisano's court records show his criminal record also includes convictions for grand larceny, DWIs, and possession of ammunition by a convicted felon. 

When Oppedisano was arrested on his 63-foot Sunseeker yacht, the INXS FINALLY, in December 2019 off the coast of Miami, the Coast Guard found he was smuggling over a dozen undocumented migrants from the Bahamas to Florida. They also said they found over $200,000 in U.S. and Bahamian currency hidden behind a panel in a closet on board. He was sentenced to time served and three years of supervised release.

Oppedisano lived in the United States from the age of 5 with his family in New York, but he was deported from the country in January 2019 according to court documents. CBS News was unable to confirm Oppedisano's current whereabouts, but the donation receipt from Santos' campaign included a Whitestone, N.Y., address believed to belong to Oppedisano's parents. CBS made repeated attempts to reach Oppedisano but received no response. 

Members of Oppedisano's family also donated to Santos's campaign. His brother and niece, who run an Italian restaurant in Queens called Il Bacco, were appointed to Santos' Small Business coalition. Santos, who posted that he frequented Il Bacco on Instagram, spent more than $25,000 at the establishment on his campaign's dime since his first failed attempt to win a seat in Congress in 2020, according to FEC records. The disbursements were filed under meeting charges or food and beverage expenses between 2020 and 2022, covering both of Santos's races for office. The campaign also owed nearly $19,000 to the restaurant for an "Election Night Event." 

Brett Kappel, an attorney with Harmon Curran, told CBS News that accepting donations from foreign nationals who are not legal residents of the U.S. is a crime under the Federal Election Campaign Act. 

"These contributions could be especially problematic for Representative Santos if any of the ongoing investigations determine that these funds ultimately came from one or more foreign nationals," Kappel said. 

Santos could face charges including campaign finance violations and other crimes such as mail or wire fraud, and if convicted, according to Kappel, an expert on campaign finance, lobbying and government ethics laws, the congressman could face expulsion from Congress. 

According to Kappel, most members of Congress resign after a felony conviction. But some refuse. The late congressman Jim Traficant, Democrat of Ohio, was convicted on charges of corruption in 2002. After resisting calls by Republicans and Democrats to resign, he was expelled by a near-unanimous House vote. 

If Santos is charged and convicted for campaign finance crimes, Kappel says, "he, his campaign committee and possibly some of his donors will also be hit with civil penalties by the FEC." But if he faces a Justice Department investigation, Kappel says Santos's congressional seat could be a "significant bargaining chip," since resignation is typically a condition of a plea deal.

Mystery funds

Santos had several mechanisms to receive donations for his campaign. He had several joint fundraising partner committees, and a leadership PAC that helped him raise millions of dollars.

The limit on individual donations directly made to candidate committees is $2,900 per election (like a primary, general or special election), while individual contributions made to political action committees are capped at a total of $5,000 a year. 

A candidate's committee is the principal means for a campaign to fundraise for an election, but a political action committee is "a popular term for a political committee organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates. Most PACs represent business, labor or ideological interests," according to OpenSecrets. 

Super PACs, however, can receive an unlimited amount of donations, including from labor organizations and corporations, but cannot donate to individual candidates or even political parties. Instead they work to communicate with the public via messaging, such as running ads and sending mail to homes. 

For donors, Robert Maguire, the research director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says at its core, the big dollar donations are really about "proximity to power in America." The more one donates the more access they receive by means of invitations to events or by establishing connections to those in power, he said. 

That philosophy appears not to have been lost on Santos: Newsday reported that four political action committees associated with Santos and his family had donated nearly $185,000 to the Nassau County GOP committees since 2021. 

At a press conference calling for Santos's resignation on Wednesday, Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Cairo said, "[Santos] has no place in the Nassau County Republican Committee nor should he serve in public service nor as an elected official."

Santos's leadership PAC, GADS PAC, in particular stood out to Maguire. 

"It is really rare for someone who hasn't been elected to have a leadership PAC," Maguire said.

The FEC defines a leadership PAC as "a political committee that is directly or indirectly established, financed, maintained or controlled by a candidate or an individual holding a federal office. The committee is not an authorized committee of the candidate or office holder, and is not affiliated with an authorized committee of a candidate or office holder." 

A review of the statements for both Santos' campaign committee and leadership PAC show that they share the same treasurer, a practice that Maguire says is common.

Maguire described it as a tool that is normally used by established politicians as a "slush fund." It's a campaign finance "gray area," Maguire explained, or a loophole for personal expenditures.

The personal financial disclosure

How Santos personally came into so much money within one election cycle also remains a point of confusion. On Monday, the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center accused Santos in a complaint to the FEC of illegally using campaign funds for personal expenses, including for an apartment rental, and for submitting false information about both the source of his campaign donations and his campaign's expenses. 

On Capitol Hill he faces a complaint from two of his Democratic colleagues from New York, Reps. Ritchie Torres and Daniel Goldman, who requested the House Ethics panel investigate whether Santos broke the Ethics in Government Act by failing to file "timely, accurate and complete financial disclosure reports." They hand-delivered their ethics complaint to Santos' office.

In their complaint, Torres and Goldman allege that Santos's financial disclosure reports for 2020 and 2022 are "sparse and perplexing," and claim the Republican's public statements "have contradicted some information included in the 2022 financial disclosure and confirmed that the 2022 financial disclosure failed to disclose other information."

CBS News has previously reported that federal prosecutors with the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York are looking into Santos' finances and financial disclosures after he admitted to fabricating significant parts of his resume ahead of his election. 

In his May 2020 campaign disclosure filings, he claimed to have no assets and a $55,000 salary from a previous employer. However, in disclosures filed just weeks before election day for his latest campaign, Santos claimed to have earned $750,000 in annual salary for the period between January 2021 and December 2022, as well as millions in dividends from his company, Devolder Organization LLC.

That money is believed to have allowed him to loan $700,000 to his campaign. There is limited information on the company, no visible website to speak of and apparently nothing publicly known about the source of its earnings, and its ability to gather that amount of revenue in a just two years' time. Santos has claimed that some of his business profits arose from the connections he made at his previous employer, Harbor City Capital Corporation. Harbor City has been accused in an SEC complaint as being a "classic Ponzi scheme." Santos was not named in that complaint.

The Devolder Organization was created in May of 2021, and is based in Melbourne, Fla., with its original address belonging to a now-defunct OBGYN office. Devolder was dissolved in September of last year after failing to file its annual report, but reactivated just a week ago, following the first reports of gaps in Santos' biography. 

"This member of Congress has flaunted campaign finance laws," Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause/New York said. "There is no respect for the rules or the voters."

According to Lerner, the personal financial disclosures made by candidates are critical for voters to have at their disposal prior to casting their vote. She says  "porous" campaign finance laws and lack of enforcement from the FEC have allowed this particular situation to devolve. 

Amid all this controversy Santos has repeatedly rejected calls to resign. A representative for Santos did not immediately return requests for comment. 

Alyssa Spady contributed to this report. 

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