Some of Rep. George Santos’ earliest financial backers have faced legal scrutiny for fraud and financial misconduct, a Grid review has found.
At least four important donors to the New York Republican’s 2020 congressional campaign — which flopped but led to his successful 2022 campaign — know the business end of an investigation.
New York accountant Steve Sabba, twice convicted of tax fraud, co-hosted Santos’ campaign kickoff event in November 2019 and contributed $500, Federal Election Commission records show. Brian Watson, a Colorado businessman later charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission with securities fraud, gave $250. Santos himself, now under multiple investigations, made six contributions totaling more than $80,000 — a sum far exceeding his reported income for 2019.
New York financier Andrew Intrater, a cousin of and money manager to Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, whose interactions with Trumpworld figures came under the microscope of then-special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, gave $5,600 to Santos’ 2020 campaign. Mueller’s investigation did not accuse Intrater of any wrongdoing.
In 2018, the Treasury Department sanctioned Vekselberg and froze funds belonging to Vekselberg that Intrater managed, asserting the oligarch was tied closely to the Putin regime. The U.S. government last year accused Vekselberg of committing bank fraud.
Santos lost his 2020 bid. But the race transformed him from a political nobody with a long string of red flags — fraud charges in Brazil, eviction disputes in New York and a résumé rife with falsehoods — into a well-funded GOP candidate with ties to the national party.
“Who here is ready to overturn the election for Donald J. Trump?” Santos said at the Jan. 5, 2021, event, drawing loud cheers and applause from the crowd.
Well-connected GOPers helped Santos
Sabba did not respond to inquiries from Grid. Watson’s attorney said Watson “doesn’t remember anything in particular” about Santos. Intrater did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He told the New York Times he first connected with Santos when the candidate called to solicit financial support for his 2020 bid.
GOP insiders and the party itself appear to have helped Santos connect with funders in his winning campaign last year. Current Republican conference chair Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) endorsed Santos and reportedly directed donors to support his campaign. Last May, she tweeted excitement over helping raise $100,000 for Santos.
Santos’ treasurer, Nancy Marks, a GOP campaign finance veteran who handled fundraising for former representative Lee Zeldin, among others, has also been identified as helping introduce at least one major donor to Santos.
Santos’ attorney, Joseph Murray, declined to answer questions from Grid about the source of the funds Santos contributed to his 2020 congressional campaign, and the nature of Santos’ relationship and interaction with Sabba and Watson.
“Unfortunately, in light of the FEC complaints that have reportedly been filed, and the various prosecutors publicly announcing that they are opening investigations (although not a single one has contacted me), it would be inappropriate for me to comment on any of these issues at this time,” Murray told Grid in a text message.
Santos’ 2022 win triggered an avalanche of overdue scrutiny. Since December, Americans have learned about his false claim he earned a bachelor’s degree from Baruch College, his false claims that he was a volleyball champion and earned a 3.9 GPA at Baruch, his false claim that he earned an MBA from New York University, his false claims that he worked for Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, and his false claim that his mother died in the 9/11 attacks.
Many of the questions that are now being asked about his 2022 campaign could have been asked about his 2020 bid: Where did Santos’ support come from? Why did prominent Republicans ignore the many red flags in his background?
Among the earliest supporters of Santos was Sabba, a New York accountant and prominent Republican donor, who had pled guilty to tax fraud — for the second time — just months before co-hosting Santos’ kickoff event.
“This is a case in which a tax preparer, who was hired by clients to help them comply with their tax obligations, is alleged to have blatantly falsified his own income for several years and even failed to file his own return in 2014,” then-New York State Commissioner of Taxation and Finance Jerry Boone said at the time Sabba was arrested. Sabba, who did not respond to requests for comment, was sentenced to five years’ probation.
Watson, a real estate executive in Colorado who had been the Republican nominee for Colorado state treasurer in 2018, was another early donor.
In August 2022, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed charges against Watson alleging that he and a company he owns misrepresented their own investments in securities offerings to fund 10 real estate projects from 2017 to 2019. Watson has denied the charges. Watson’s attorneys said he and his company have not engaged in any of the alleged wrongful conduct in an answer to the SEC’s complaint late last year, and the case is still pending before a federal judge in Colorado.
Intrater, the New York financier, gave the maximum $5,600 to Santos’ 2020 campaign. This cycle, Intrater and his girlfriend gave $67,000 to Santos’ 2022 campaign and affiliated committees, and an additional $100,000 to a PAC reportedly controlled by Santos’ sister, according to Mother Jones.
Probes are ongoing
The barrage of revelations about Santos’ personal and political background has triggered calls to resign from both Republicans and Democrats, and requests for investigations by elected officials and advocacy groups.
The Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based watchdog group, filed complaints with the FEC and Justice Department early this month alleging that Santos violated campaign finance law by concealing his true source of funding, misrepresenting his campaign’s spending and illegally using campaign funds for personal expenses.
Answers to the many questions about Santos are likely to come more quickly from the Justice Department than the FEC — but they still may be many months away, said Saurav Ghosh, CLC’s director for federal campaign finance reform.
“I think right now we’re kind of in a ‘Let’s see where all the dust settles’” phase, Ghosh said. “I think, hopefully, within the next year or so we’ll get some answers about where this money actually came from.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.