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Some GOP leaders say Republican Santos 'lied' about career and Jewish heritage

Rep-elect George Santos (R-NY3) acknowledges inventing significant parts of his life story before winning a House seat on Long Island, but says he'll still take office next month.
Mary Altaffer
Rep-elect George Santos (R-NY3) acknowledges inventing significant parts of his life story before winning a House seat on Long Island, but says he'll still take office next month.

Updated December 27, 2022 at 9:14 PM ET

Congressman-elect George Santos from New York now acknowledges he misled voters about big parts of his life story before winning a seat on Long Island last month.

"A lot of people overstate on their resumes or twist a little bit or (sic) engranduate themselves," Santos told WABC radio. "I'm not saying I'm not guilty of that."

Santos hasn't responded to NPR's repeated requests for an interview, but speaking with conservative media outlets, he downplayed the significance of his deceptions, describing them as "embellishments" and insisting he'll take office next month as scheduled.

"I'm not a fraud. I'm not a criminal who defrauded the entire country and made up this fictional character and ran for Congress," Santos told WABC.

During the campaign, Santos described graduating from Baruch College, said he worked for Goldman Sachs and claimed to own valuable real estate properties.

He now acknowledges none of that is true. He also admits his claim that four of his employees died in the 2016 Pulse night club shooting in Orlando, Fla., was false.

Critics: Santos "lied" about Jewish identity

A growing number of critics, including some in the Republican Party, say Santos' outright lied when he claimed to be "a proud Jewish American" and said members of his family escaped the Holocaust.

"His story about having Holocaust heritage and Ukrainian heritage, I just don't see any evidence to support it in his family tree," Megan Smolenyak, a forensic genealogist who examined Santos' family records, said in an interview with NPR.

In a statement Monday, the Republican Jewish Coalition said Santos "deceived us and misrepresented his heritage."

One of New York's most influential Republicans, Nassau County GOP Chairman Joseph Cairo Jr., issued his own statement Monday, blasting Santos for "lies" that "broke the public trust."

"The damage that his lies have caused to many people, especially those who have been impacted by the Holocaust, are profound," Cairo said.

Santos still expected to be sworn in

But Republican leaders stopped short of urging Santos to step aside and legal experts say the scandal is unlikely to prevent Santos from being sworn in next month.

"He's constitutionally entitled to his seat," said Richard Briffault, an expert on campaign law at Columbia University, who noted the Constitution doesn't disqualify candidates for lying.

One legal wrinkle could be the roughly $700,000 Santos says he loaned his campaign. According to Briffault, federal law prohibits candidates from misstating the source of campaign funds.

"It would be serious if this was not truly a loan but this was somehow a campaign finance contribution from other people," he said.

Santos now acknowledges he struggled financially in recent years and at times couldn't pay his debts. Some Democrats have called for an investigation into the source of money Santos says he contributed to his race.

"All of Mr. Santos's disclosures must be thoroughly investigated by the Federal Election Commission...for campaign finance fraud," said Rep.-elect Dan Goldman, a New York Democrat who won a House seat last month, in a statement.

On Monday, Santos told WABC the campaign contribution was proper: "That is the money that I paid myself through my company," Santos said.

In interviews, Santos repeatedly blamed growing questions about his past on what he describes as the liberal media and said he still has the support of voters in his Long Island district.

Santos' victory in November was part of a surprising red wave in New York state that helped Republicans win a fragile national majority in the House.

Santos has also pledged to support Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who is still scrambling to rally enough GOP votes to serve as House speaker.

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Corrected: December 27, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story said that the Pulse nightclub shooting happened in Miami, Fla. In fact, it happened in Orlando, Fla.
Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.