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Rep. George Santos pleads not guilty to 13 federal charges, decries "witch hunt"

Rep. George Santos returns to D.C. after refusing to resign
Rep. George Santos returns to D.C. after refusing to resign 03:11

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. -- The Long Island congressman who fabricated his qualifications then minimized the lies to the court of public opinion now has to defend himself in federal court, and he says he's ready to do it. 

Rep. George Santos faced a judge Wednesday on a 13-count indictment alleging he defrauded supporters and Congress in multiple schemes. 

Santos, whose admitted web of lies got him elected but had bucked calls to give up the seat he won as a result, now has to answer to federal criminal charges.   

"This is the beginning of the ability for me to address and defend myself," Santos said. "We have an indictment, we have the information that the government wants to come after me on, and I'm going to comply. I've been compliant throughout this entire process."  

George Santos news conference after court appearance 24:32

Santos called the case a "witch hunt." 

"The reality is, it's a witch hunt. Because it makes no sense that in four months, four months, five months, I'm indicted. You have Joe Biden's entire family receiving deposits, nine family members receiving money from foreign destinations into their bank accounts. It's been years of exposing... and yet no investigation is launched into them. I'm going to fight my battle. I'm going to deliver. I'm going to fight the witch hunt. I'm going to take care of clearing my name. And I look forward to doing that," Santos said after he left court. 

In court, looking grim-faced, he pleaded not guilty to the 19-page indictment, answering the judge's questions with "Yes, ma'am." Outside court, he insisted he will be exonerated. 

The charges - fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and false statements - center on what the U.S. attorney calls "fraudulent schemes and brazen misrepresentations," that Santos used "repeated dishonesty and deception to ascend to the halls of Congress and enrich himself." 

"He used political contributions to line his pockets, unlawfully applied for unemployment benefits that should have gone to New Yorkers who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and lied to the House of Representatives," the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York said in a statement.

Specifically, that he: 

  • Used $50,000 in political contributions for campaign ads to instead buy designer clothing and pay down credit cards and car payments
  • Applied for unemployment at the height of the pandemic while he was employed earning $120,000 per year
  • Overstated his income in congressional disclosure forms, falsely claiming he earned nearly $7 million
Congressman Santos charged: What comes next 04:15

Santos denied all of it. 

"During the pandemic, it wasn't very clear. I don't know where the government is getting its information," Santos said. "This is about innocent until proven guilty. I have my right to fight for my innocence, as the government has the right to try to find me guilty." 

Constituents shared relief on social media. "We are finally feeling 'heard in the third'," wrote one, who called the indictment karma. 

George Santos pleads not guilty 15:53

Vocal critic Josh Lafazan, who ran for the seat, said now it is time to end the national nightmare of Santos and expel him. 

"Today is vindication. Today confirming what we have been saying for five months. Not only is Santos a liar, but he broke the public trust, and he likely violated federal law in the process," Lafazan said. 

"I've never met anyone who's a total, total liar," former Republican Long Island Congressman Peter King said. "To me, the Ethics Committee has enough there to recommend him being expelled, and they can send that to the House and that can be voted on within a matter of weeks ... He could be gone by June or July."

Santos is free on $500,000 bond. The judge said he will be allowed to leave the state, at Santos' request, to fundraise for re-election. 

George Santos indictment: Professor James Sample breaks down the charges 20:53

Santos is already talking about the future. 

"This has been an experience for a book," Santos said. 

So what happened to the other irregularities? Where got his sudden wealth to loan his campaign $700,000, campaign expenses all listed at $199.99 - there are still multiple other investigations. 

The current charges include 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.  They carry a maximum penalty of 20 years, if convicted. 

Santos is due back in court June 30. 

Rep. George Santos tells CBS2 he's not scared about indictment 04:19

Hours after leaving court, Santos called CBS2 political reporter Marcia Kramer to discuss what he called "an interesting day."

He told Kramer he was ready to fight his battles and said he wasn't scared about the indictment.

Santos admitted he thought the government could have gone for more serious charges, although he also said he thought they were grasping at straws.  

Calls are intensifying for him to be removed from office. 

"I thought he should resign a long time ago. I didn't think he should ever be here," Rep. Nancy Pelosi said. 

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he would only call for Santos to resign if he was found guilty. 

"If a person is indicted, they're not on committees. They have the right to vote, but have to go to trial," McCarthy said. "Like every American, you have your day in court."

While leaving White Plains on Wednesday, President Joe Biden was asked if Santos should be expelled.

"That's for Congress to decide," he said.

"He should just do the right thing and put this district out of its misery and move on," Gov. Kathy Hochul said.

"He's an embarrassment to our party," Republican Sen. Mitt Romney said.

"He needs to go right away. I hope that he resigns," Republican Rep. Nicholas LaLota said.

Legal troubles might not stop here. He's still under investigation in several jurisdictions as well as the House Ethics Committee. 

In a statement, Concerned Citizens of NY-03 said: 

No one is surprised that George Santos was charged in federal court today with 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. The world has known for months that Santos is a liar, an imposter, a criminal. The only thing we didn't know was which of his many crimes would be prosecuted first. It's beyond time for Speaker Kevin McCarthy to withdraw his support for Santos and show him the door. 

Even in Congress, where truth-stretching is almost a norm, Santos is an outlier. He is an imposter. The Jewish, well-educated, half-Black real estate tycoon that George Santos sold to NY-03 voters, was a mirage. Unlike other legitimately elected Members of Congress who have found themselves in hot water for misdeeds, George Santos has never represented the will of the people of NY's Third Congressional District.

It's a disgrace that McCarthy has continued to sully the U.S. House of Representatives by allowing Santos to walk those sacred halls - for more than four months now!  And all that time, the residents of NY's Third Congressional District have been without meaningful representation. It is the Speaker who sets the rules for what happens next. McCarthy must remove Santos, no more delays.  George Santos cannot be permitted to griff off the American people for one more day.

"Mr. Santos' breathtaking scope of lies has left his constituents -- and all New Yorkers -- gasping for air and calling for accountability. Now that the Eastern District of New York has appropriately indicted him, Mr. Santos should resign. It's been clear for a long time that the voters have been defrauded, and Mr. Santos' seat in Congress is tantamount to an ill gotten gain: he should not be allowed to profit from the fruits of his deception. Voters deserve a representative who doesn't lie and deceive their way into power, and unfortunately they have waited too long for Mr. Santos to do the right thing and resign," Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY said.

"There's nothing worse than having a candidate that integrity is not intact, so I really hope that he can explain this for the sake of many people," said Evi Angelakis, a former friend of Santos'.

Even if convicted of a crime, he can only be removed from office if two-thirds of the House of Representatives vote to expel him.  

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