When George Santos first ran for Congress in 2020, he lost by more than 12 points. But even though he was running in a safely blue district, the “red mirage” of Election Day votes lent the false impression of a tight race, and before absentee ballot counting began the following week, Santos seized on a golden fundraising opportunity: a recount fund.
The only catch was, in Santos’ case, there never was a recount. Those 90,000 absentee ballots devoured Santos’ 4,000-vote Election Day lead, swinging the race—which had not even been ranked “competitive” by Cook Political Report—to Democratic opponent Tom Suozzi. Suozzi eventually won by more than 46,000 votes.
State election laws only trigger automatic recounts when the margin is 20 votes or less or 0.5 percent or less, and those laws do not allow candidates to call recounts independently.
But that didn’t stop Santos from creating “Devolder Santos for Congress Recount” (DSCR) less than 24 hours after Election Day—a fundraising committee that raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supposedly in connection with a recount that was never in the cards to begin with.
Saurav Ghosh, director of federal reform at government watchdog Campaign Legal Center, told The Daily Beast that Santos appears to have “abused” one of the “most unregulated areas of campaign finance.”
Essentially, Ghosh said, federal guidelines say candidates can have recount accounts, which allow them to raise money above the usual election contribution limits, “but they don’t really delineate how the money can be spent.”
“Recounts are one of the most unregulated areas of campaign finance. They’ve been around for decades, and I think some of the institutional views of recount funds in general reflect the thought that they’re going to have an impact on elections,” he explained. “However, recount accounts aren’t treated the same way as general election funds—which deal with money raised and spent to influence voters—because essentially recount money is only supposed to be related to post-election recounts or legal fees related to challenging election results.”
The rules around such funds are loose enough that Santos may be able to justify the fundraising, Ghosh said. As for the spending, he said, “Our view is that at a minimum that’s an abuse of what recount funds are supposed to be used for.”
Between Nov. 4 and Dec. 18, while then-President Donald Trump and his allies were raising boatloads of money on false claims of election fraud, DSCR pulled in more than $265,000, according to Federal Election Commission records. It was a huge windfall. For comparison, Santos’ actual campaign only raised around $358,000 for the entire 2020 election, not counting the $81,250 Santos claimed to have loaned from his “personal funds.”
Over the same period, DSCR also reported more than $260,000 in expenses, some of which campaign finance experts flagged as suspicious in discussions with The Daily Beast. (The group still has $5,148.04 in the bank today.)
Those costs were also highlighted in an FEC complaint filed on Jan. 31 by campaign finance reform group End Citizens United.
In a statement provided to The Daily Beast, an ECU spokesperson called the recount committee a “sham.”
“George Santos’ lies and corruption know no bounds. He set up a sham recount fund—for a recount that never happened. Then, he illegally used that money to offset costs for his 2022 campaign,” the statement said. “It’s yet another blatant violation of the law, which is why we’re asking the FEC to begin an investigation and also hand all relevant material to the DOJ for their investigation.”
That complaint highlighted several payments to a group of election observers—with another nearly $4,000 in “housing” expenses—while pointing out there was no recount to observe.
“What is clear from his recount fund activities is that it reinforces the need for federal regulation for these funds,” Ghosh said. “If he was paying for absentee ballot counts, that’s not what recount funds are supposedly for, because that’s election related. But you also have other expenses which may not be related to elections at all. It’s all too unregulated.”
The Daily Beast spoke with three people who got paid by DSCR to be a Board of Elections observer. All three said they observed the counting of absentee ballots in Nassau County, in Santos’ district on Long Island.
“I drove out there and observed the opening and counting of absentee ballots for a couple days,” one person said. “Then George said something outlandish to the press, and I was done.” Santos, who appeared in D.C. at events surrounding the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, tweeted “Democracy is dead” on Nov. 7.
Asked how Santos was able to raise so much money after the election, the person who works in New York GOP politics said they didn’t know.
“I knew some stuff was up with the campaign fundraising, that he was trying to make money off campaigns other than his own,” this person said.
Santos indeed appears to have adopted an entirely new fundraising strategy for the recount, and it appears connected to donor lists.
Most of Santos’ recount money came from small “unitemized” donations of $200 or less, FEC records show. Those donations, which don’t trigger disclosure requirements, made up around $203,000 of the total, or about 77 percent. For his campaign, it was the reverse, with unitemized donations comprising just shy of $50,000 of the haul, or around 17 percent.
While Santos isn’t required to disclose those donor names, WinRed—the GOP’s small-dollar online fundraising platform that handled those donations—did disclose them. According to FEC data, DSCR received more than 7,500 separate donations via WinRed in the six weeks after the 2020 election. That’s about 3,100 more individual contributions than WinRed reported for his full 2020 campaign.
The Daily Beast cross-checked the names of more than a dozen of those donors at random, and none of them had given to Santos previously. We reached out to a number of them, but only one went through their financial records to confirm their contribution. When The Daily Beast informed the donor that they had made their recount donation the day after Santos conceded—and that there was never any recount to begin with—the person said she would contact WinRed about getting her money back.
Santos continued to raise money into his recount committee for a full month after he conceded, according to FEC records, with the last donation coming Dec. 18, 2020.
The new fundraising strategy is also reflected on the spending side—specifically, a whopping $139,000 “fundraising commission” payment to The Donor Bureau, a popular Republican fundraising house that specializes in small-dollar fundraising, primarily by renting out donor lists.
But while the Santos campaign itself never paid the Donor Bureau in 2020 or 2022, according to FEC filings, his recount expense stood nearly $110,000 above the next largest amount the firm received from any committee in all of 2020. Only one other committee reported a “fundraising” expense that year—almost all were related to list rentals—and the only group that has ever reported a larger payment is the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a GOP juggernaut.
The payment is so anomalous that it caught the attention of campaign finance experts.
“That is very, very odd, and certainly suggests that the payments may not have been for fundraising as Santos says it was,” Ghosh said.
Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director of watchdog group Documented, said that while some of DSCR’s expenses could theoretically be connected to the ballot counters, others, including the Donor Bureau expense, merit scrutiny.
“It’s improper if he did not actually pay as much money to Donor Bureau as he reported and just pocketed the difference, or if Donor Bureau was getting money out of recount work while the campaign was using it for its own fundraising purposes,” Fischer told The Daily Beast. “That expense is really high, and totally inconsistent with the commission Donor Bureau takes with any other candidate or committee.”
A Donor Bureau representative previously declined to discuss Santos on the record. Asked for comment this week, the firm did not reply.
There’s another explanation: the data.
A Santos recount worker told The Daily Beast that Santos was jealous of the money that GOP longshot John Cummings received when he ran against Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2020.
“That was the first big explosion of money coming through outside network people, and George wanted in,” the person said. “George didn’t understand why John was raising so much more money, and he was always trying to get at email lists from John. And then later George got Tina Forte to run for that seat and assumed he could control information on fundraising from the AOC district, whether it was from direct mail or email lists.”
DSCR also spent $2,026.25 at Best Buy for a laptop on Nov. 12, just five days before Santos conceded. His congressional campaign bought a laptop later that month for the exact same price, also from Best Buy. The twin purchases suggest the recount laptop may have been primarily for other uses—including possibly for the 2022 campaign, according to the ECU complaint.
And DSCR also racked up a curious dinner expense at Santos’ favorite Italian restaurant. According to The Washington Post, Santos held a lavish business meeting at Il Bacco in Queens with a prospective investor client eight days after losing the 2020 election—approximately Nov. 11. The next day, the recount committee reported a $400 meal expense at the restaurant.
“If he expensed that dinner, it would clearly be an impermissible use of any campaign funds, but especially for recount funds,” Fischer said. “Based on reporting, that dinner had nothing to do with the campaign or recount or election contests.”
The recount committee also sharpens the focus on Santos’ 2020 campaign finances, which campaign finance experts say have gone overlooked generally, and bear the same marks of sloppiness and possible violations as his 2022 reports, albeit at a smaller scale. But one item seems even more outrageous in 2020—the personal loans Santos claims to have made to his campaign.
“At least on paper, his personal loans to his campaign were even more unexplainable in 2020 than they were in 2022, because in 2022 he at least reported on his disclosures that he had enough money to put into his campaign,” Fischer said. “But he reported no income at all in 2020, and $55,000 the year prior, and somehow he put $80,000 into his 2020 campaign. Given he had no income, where did he get the money to lend to his campaign?”
Ghosh agreed. “That math just doesn’t work out,” he said. Together with the recount committee and other reporting anomalies, he said, the Department of Justice should “absolutely” be targeting Santos’ first bid.
“Our group filed an FEC complaint focused on the ’22 campaign, but the landscape has shifted and keeps shifting, and everything that has been reported about his 2020 campaign—from his poor reporting, the spending, and the recount fund—that should all be in the hands of investigators with the FEC and DOJ,” he said. “And it probably is.”