MIAMI — Before George Santos’ life story began to unravel — his spectacular tales of college volleyball stardom and Wall Street pedigree earning him a reputation as perhaps Washington’s greatest fabulist — the Republican congressman was just a dark-horse candidate frequenting Miami’s hippest restaurants and rubbing elbows on the water with campaign donors.
Far from the New York district he now represents, Santos stayed multiple nights at the swanky W South Beach hotel. He ate at Nusr-Et in Miami, the steakhouse owned by the celebrity chef known as “Salt Bae.” He particularly enjoyed Miami Diner in Miami Beach, a vintage dining car with bar stools and neon lights that he visited on back-to-back days.
At least, that’s what his campaign finance reports suggest.
But as various details of Santos’ biography have been debunked and his campaign fundraising and spending have come under scrutiny, the time and money his campaign reported spending in South Florida also appears to have holes.
A Miami Herald review of Santos’ spending in the region raises questions about some of his campaign reports, and about what, exactly, he did in Florida — aside from holding a fundraiser on a yacht in Fort Lauderdale, which event organizers say did happen.
The managing partner of a diner where the campaign reported spending more than $200 over back-to-back days said he had no receipts matching items on the campaign reports.
A $199.99 stay at the high-end W South Beach hotel — where room rates are typically more than $700 per night — was flagged by the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center in a wide-ranging complaint with the Federal Elections Commission earlier this month as improbable, “barring some type of private insider rate that would raise other serious violations of federal campaign finance law.”
Even his payments at a public beachside parking lot on Miami Beach, where the campaign listed payments as small as $3 and as big as $100, were deemed puzzling by the city’s parking department.
The apparent discrepancies add to the mystery of Santos’ ties to Florida, where his campaign finance reports suggest he took several trips along the campaign trail and where his New York-based company, the Devolder Organization, is legally incorporated.
“Maybe some of these disbursements didn’t happen at all,” said Saurav Ghosh, the Campaign Legal Center’s director of federal campaign finance reform. “It begs the question, ‘Well, how did they spend their money?’”
Representatives for Santos’ congressional office and an attorney representing Santos did not respond to multiple requests for comment. His former campaign treasurer, Nancy Marks, could not be reached.
Santos, who has admitted to “résumé embellishment,” has struggled to fully explain his campaign reports, including how he obtained the money for a $700,000 personal campaign loan and whether he masked his spending by listing dozens of items at $199.99 — one cent below the threshold requiring receipts be kept by the campaign.
Joe Murray, a lawyer for Santos, said in a statement to CNN in late December that Santos’ campaign followed the law.
“Campaign expenditures for staff members including travel, lodging and meals are normal expenses of any competent campaign. The suggestion that the Santos campaign engaged in any unlawful spending of campaign funds is irresponsible, at best,” Murray said.
Since his election, reports have shed light on numerous false statements by Santos, including that his mother escaped the 9/11 terrorist attacks and later died from related cancer, that he attended Baruch College in New York and starred on the volleyball team, and that he worked for Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.
Watchdog groups such as the Campaign Legal Center have begun to dig into his campaign finance reports, finding discrepancies and gaps in his records about who gave money to his campaign and where his money went.
Those campaign filings suggest that Santos was a frequent traveler to Florida between early 2021 and his election last November. There were hotel stays in West Palm Beach, Orlando, Tampa, Melbourne and Miami.
Social media posts show him attending events around the state that align with at least some of the reports, including a forum for GOP congressional candidates at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach last February.
But it’s not quite clear why Santos spent so much time in Florida, where his campaign reported over $17,000 in expenses.
In attempting to retrace Santos’ steps, the Herald identified multiple confounding reports from his trip in October 2021.
On Oct. 13, filings say the campaign picked up a $199.99 tab at Miami Diner, an eatery at Ninth Street and Alton Road that has since closed. But the restaurant doesn’t have any record of a check for that amount, according to its managing partner, Alex Karavias, who told the Herald he reviewed receipts from that day and found no table spent more than $127.35, including tip.
“Even that amount is higher than a typical check at the Diner at the time,” Karavias said in an email, though he noted the amount would be “pretty reasonable” if there were several people at the table.
The next day, the Santos campaign reported spending another $75.79 at the diner. But there weren’t any corresponding checks for that amount, either, Karavias said.
Karavias didn’t know for sure whether Santos or members of his campaign staff ever actually ate at the diner, which he has since closed and replaced with a Greek gyro and pastry shop.
The campaign also reported a series of hard-to-explain expenses for parking in Miami Beach, starting Oct. 13, 2021.
Nine payments were listed as being made out to 4621 Collins Ave., a large public surface lot just north of the Eden Roc and Fontainebleau hotels.
Parking there for any amount of time up to 24 hours costs a flat $20, according to city officials. Registered Miami Beach residents can pay $6. The rates come with a 35-cent transaction fee when paying via a mobile app.
But most of the payments Santos reported don’t jibe with those rates. That includes two expenses of $99.99, one of $75, and others of $8, $4 and $3.
Those amounts are “almost impossible,” said Miami Beach Parking Director Monica Beltran.
“They are impossible if we’re talking only about that lot,” she said.
Other parts of Santos’ travels in South Florida were hard to verify.
In addition to the $199.99 stay, the Santos campaign reported two separate stays at the W South Beach four days later, one for $202.74 and another for $514.02. Representatives for the Marriott-owned W South Beach did not respond to the Herald’s inquiry about whether Santos actually stayed there, or whether his reported expenses would have been possible at the hotel.
Several other hotels and restaurants named in Santos’ reports didn’t respond to the Herald’s requests for verification.
Among them is Salt Bae’s Nusr-Et Steakhouse, where the campaign reported spending $300 on Oct. 15, 2021.
Fundraiser on a boat
One campaign stop in South Florida the Herald was able to confirm was in Fort Lauderdale, where Santos held a fundraiser on a boat at Marina Bay, a luxury marina off the south fork of the New River.
Marc Goldman, a Boca Raton businessman and former president of Farmland Dairies, says he helped host the event on Oct. 13, 2021.
“My recollection is it was a nice turnout,” said Goldman, a board member for the Republican Jewish Coalition. “He was thankful to everybody who supported him. He wanted to do good for the country.”
General admission tickets went for $500, according to a flier posted on social media, and attendees boarded a boat called “Longshot” — an apparent nod to Santos’ underdog status at the time.
Another organizer, Derek Utley, who is based in Palm Beach and previously worked on a joint fundraising committee that supported Donald Trump, said he doesn’t remember much.
“I don’t recall the details of it and haven’t seen George since,” Utley said in a message on Twitter.
A year later, on Oct. 9, 2022, the campaign disclosed a stay at a Miami Hilton, though social media posts indicate Santos was attending various events in Long Island at the time.
Ghosh, of the Campaign Legal Center, said that was “a little unusual,” but plausible that a campaign staffer was in Florida while Santos was in New York.
“Right now, we have far more questions than answers,” he said.
A part-time Florida resident?
Santos, 34, has other ties to Florida.
He was briefly registered to vote in Orlando in 2016. He said four people at his company died in the Pulse nightclub shooting there that year, a claim Santos later walked back after The New York Times reported that none of the 49 victims appeared to have worked at any of his companies.
A small investment firm where Santos worked in New York, Harbor City Capital, was also based in Florida until its assets were frozen in 2021, when the Securities and Exchange Commission accused it of running a “classic Ponzi scheme.”
And the congressman has said the money for his $700,000 campaign loan came from the company he formed in Florida to connect wealthy people looking to buy and sell things like boats and planes.
In a December 2020 exchange on Twitter, Santos also said he was a part-time resident of “Sunny Isle,” an apparent reference to Sunny Isles Beach, the city of luxury skyscrapers along Collins Avenue.
“I’m a sunny isle part time resident and LOVE IT,” Santos wrote, responding to a tweet that has since been deleted. “You’d love it! Stick to Collins!” he added.
The Herald could not immediately verify if Santos ever lived there.