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Rep. George Santos is in custody after facing a federal criminal charge

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

With a crime report of sorts - New York Congressman George Santos has been arrested. He's charged with 13 counts of criminal wrongdoing, including an alleged scheme to defraud donors to his political campaign and also allegations that he tried to cheat New York state's unemployment relief system during the pandemic. NPR's Brian Mann is at the federal courthouse in Islip, N.Y., which is where Mr. Santos turned himself in this morning.

Brian, good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Give me some details of these allegations, please.

MANN: Well, first, there's this scheme, according to the feds, where George Santos allegedly cheated campaign donors, telling them that money that they sent to his campaign would be spent on television ads and other efforts to get him elected. Instead, according to the government, he spent that money on luxury designer clothes, making car payments, cash payments to himself and to other friends. Here's what U.S. attorney Breon Peace said. He said, taken together, the allegations and the indictment charged Santos with relying on repeated dishonesty and deception to ascend to the halls of Congress and enrich himself.

INSKEEP: I appreciate hearing these details because when people first began talking about criminal charges against George Santos, it was fair to ask why. He obviously had deceived voters in New York City and on Long Island about his background. But, of course, making up stories is not necessarily a crime. But you're saying it's not strictly about lying. It's about getting money out of people for purposes other than what he said.

MANN: That's right. And if these allegations hold up in court - obviously he's innocent until proven guilty - he routed money that was supposed to go to his political career into his own pocket. Those are the charges that he faces here.

INSKEEP: Now, what is this other scheme that you describe, an allegation that he tried to fraudulently receive unemployment benefits back in 2020?

MANN: Yeah, that's right. What the government says is that in 2020, during the pandemic, when George Santos was employed, earning $120,000 a year and also running in his first campaign - remember he also ran for public office back in 2020 - they say he, at that time, applied for unemployment benefits. And that fraud charge will also be tested in court.

INSKEEP: What is Santos saying?

MANN: Well, it's interesting, Steve. You know, he's been defiant throughout this and has been constantly pushing back against the press and against his critics. But in the last couple of days, he's gone absolutely silent - nothing on Twitter, nothing on social media about these charges. We've reached out to him and to his attorney, and they have not gotten back to us. And so a guy who's been very pugilistic and kind of, you know, punching at his opponents throughout this - not a word from him now that these charges have been filed.

INSKEEP: I guess we should mention there's not a lot of doubt about some of the lies that he told fabrications that he made. What's his - what's the background of these charges?

MANN: Yeah. You know, it's interesting, Steve. He really did push the boundaries of political deception. You're right. Politicians often lie. They embellish. That's what George Santos says he did. You know, but he made up stories about his family being in the Holocaust. He invented an entire professional career for himself. He invented an education background that he did not possess. He claimed to be a competitive volleyball player who led his college team to a championship. It really was very difficult to find anything in his background that really held up under scrutiny. As you say, much of that's not criminal. There are allegations now, though, that he did cross the line repeatedly - 13 charges here that he's now going to have to fight in court.

INSKEEP: You know, ordinarily, a newly elected freshman member of Congress is not that important. And I don't mean that to be dismissive. It's just that you have to stay in Congress a while to become powerful or important normally. But this guy is important because the Republican majority that he's part of is so narrow.

MANN: That's right. He was a key vote getting House Speaker Kevin McCarthy his speaker's gavel. He's been a staunch ally of Speaker McCarthy. Kevin McCarthy was asked about this yesterday. He says he will not demand that Santos step down or resign. He pointed to other politicians, including Democrats, who faced criminal charges in the past but remained in office, kept casting votes while their trial played out. So that appears to be what's going to happen, that while Congressman Santos faces these charges in court, he's going to continue to serve.

INSKEEP: Brian, thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Brian Mann. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.