In the Wake of Santos’ Lies, Media Double Check Records of Potential Replacements

Following the scandal involving serial liar George Santos, there is a welcome push by some major media to conduct intensive research on claims being made by the two candidates running to replace him.

Santos, a first-term Republican congressmember from New York state, was finally expelled from the House of Representatives on December 1, 2023, after an investigation by the House Ethics Committee and the filing of federal criminal charges against him.

Voters in Nassau County and areas in New York City’s borough of Queens will pick his successor in a special election. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat who previously represented the district, and Mazi Pilip, the Republican nominee and a Nassau legislator, are competing in the election to be held February 13.

‘The Leader told you so’

 US Rep-Elect George Santos is a Fraud - and Wanted Criminal

The Leader (12/20/22) gave itself a well-deserved pat on the back for exposing George Santos’ deceptions before he was elected.

A small newspaper on Long Island, the North Shore Leader, did an excellent job of investigating the torrent of phony claims by candidate Santos before he won election to the House in November 2022.

“The Leader Told You So: US Rep-Elect George Santos Is a Fraud,” said the headline of a piece in the Leader (12/20/22), published the day after the New York Times (12/19/22) ran its own  exposé about false biographical claims by Santos during his campaign.

But the Times exposé, trumpeting “new revelations uncovered by the Times,” was published more than a month after Election Day. The Leader piece—by Niall Fitzgerald—pointed out that the Times and other outlets were late to the story:

In a story first broken by the North Shore Leader over four months ago, the national media has suddenly discovered that US Congressman-elect George Santos (R–Queens/Nassau)—dubbed “George Scam-tos” by many local political observers—is a deepfake liar who has falsified his background, assets, and contacts…. The New York Times published a lengthy expose on Santos this week detailing that virtually everything Santos has said, filed and published about himself is a lie.

The Leader laid out what it had uncovered about Santos’ many deceptions in an October 21, 2022, editorial endorsing Robert Zimmerman, Santos’ Democratic opponent. “This newspaper would like to endorse a Republican for US Congress in NY3,” stated the Republican-leaning Leader. But, it said, “the GOP nominee—George Santos—is so bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy that we cannot.”

“Santos calls himself a ‘contradiction’—a ‘gay Latino’ who is ‘ultra-MAGA,’” noted the Leader, and “brags about his ‘wealth’ and his ‘mansions’ in the Hamptons—but he really lives in a row house in Queens. He boasts like an insecure child—but he’s most likely just a fabulist—a fake.”

It related that:

In 2020 Santos, then age 32, was the NY director of a nearly $20 million venture fund called “Harbor City Capital” until the SEC shut it down as a “Ponzi scheme.” Over $6 million from investors was stolen—for personal luxuries like Mercedes cars, huge credit card bills and a waterfront home—and millions from new investors were paid out to old investors. Classic Bernie Madoff “Ponzi scheme” fraud. Santos’ campaign raises similar concerns.

Another piece in the Leader (11/1/22), published a week before the election, examined Santos’ long-overdue financial disclosure forms, noting that they showed an “inexplicable rise in his alleged net worth to $11 million”—even though he’d declared no income for the past year, and had “claimed that he had no assets over $5,000” two years earlier. The story quoted an anonymous “Republican Leader”:  “Are we…being played as extras in ‘The Talented Mr Santos’ ?”

An ‘atrophied’ system

 A tiny paper broke the George Santos scandal but no one paid attention

Washington Post (12/29/22) quoted Medill journalism professor Tim Franklin: “If we don’t fix the crisis in local news, we’re going to see more George Santos–type cases and instances of politicians going unchecked.”

The Washington Post also published an article (12/29/22) after the Times exposé ran in December, headlined “A Tiny Paper Broke the George Santos Scandal, But No One Paid Attention.”

This piece, by Sarah Ellison, related:

Months before the New York Times published a December article suggesting Rep.-elect George Santos (R–NY) had fabricated much of his résumé and biography, a tiny publication on Long Island was ringing alarm bells about its local candidate.

The North Shore Leader wrote in September, when few others were covering Santos, about his “inexplicable rise” in reported net worth, from essentially nothing in 2020 to as much as $11 million two years later.

The story noted other oddities about the self-described gay Trump supporter…who would go on to flip New York’s 3rd Congressional District from blue to red, and is now under investigation by authorities for misrepresenting his background to voters.

The Post story continued:

It was the stuff national headlines are supposed to be built on: A hyperlocal outlet like the Leader does the legwork, regional papers verify and amplify the story, and before long an emerging political scandal is being broadcast coast to coast.

“But that system, which has atrophied for decades amid the destruction of news economies, appears to have failed completely this time,” said the Post:

Despite a well-heeled and well-connected readership—the Leader’s publisher says it counts among its subscribers Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Jesse Watters, and several senior people at Newsday, a once-mighty Long Island–based tabloid that has won 19 Pulitzers—no one followed its story before Election Day.

During the run up to the November election that saw Santos rise to office, Newsday  (10/23/22, 10/4/22) had several articles dedicated to debates between the candidates and comparing their policy positions, on points such as abortion and crime. The paper  also had a story (9/20/22) discussing Santos’ connections to the January 6 Capitol riots. Absent, however, was any investigation or even mention of the inconsistencies in Santos’ self-description that had been revealed in the Leader’s coverage.

Unusual vetting

Neither the New York Times or Newsday have published any regrets over their handling of the Santos/Zimmerman race in 2022. But now both papers are doing journalistically unusual vetting in reporting  on the Suozzi/Pilip contest.

 A close look at his record

Caught napping by Santos’ massive fabrications, Newsday (1/7/24) applied a fine-toothed comb to the resumés of the candidates vying to fill his seat, like Democrat Tom Suozzi.

“Evaluating Resumes of 3rd District Candidates,” was the headline of a three-page spread in Newsday (1/7/24). “In independent vetting of both Suozzi and Pilip, Newsday reporters reviewed their resumes, checked with employers and colleges they cited and examined numerous public records to confirm many of the details they have shared public,” the paper reported.

“Here’s what we know, and can confirm, about Suozzi,” began an early section of the spread:

Suozzi graduated from Boston College in 1984 with a degree in accounting from the Carroll School of Management, a spokesman for the Boston College confirmed to Newsday. He graduated from Fordham University School of Law in 1989, according to a Fordham spokesman. He graduated from Chaminade High School in Mineola in 1980, a school spokesman said.

The piece went on and on with what Suozzi claimed and Newsday’s research on it.

There were paragraphs labeled “Ethics,” under which Newsday reported:

In 2021, the House Ethics Committee launched an investigation into Suozzi’s alleged failure to properly report approximately 300 financial transactions. According to the federal STOCK Act, members of Congress must report stock trades within 45 days of the transaction. The trades must be reported in a filing known as a “Periodic Transaction Report.”

Suozzi said he reported those trades, but only in his year-end financial disclosure reports to the Clerk of the House.

And, still under “Ethics,” in connection with what had been his former congressional office:

Suozzi owns the rental space through Ruvo Realty LLC, and paid the company’s $37,860 in rent for his office suite at 3 School Street in Glen Cove, Federal Election Commission records show. Suozzi made payments to Ruvo in 2020 and 2021, but has made none since, according to FEC filings.

Reviewing documents

 A close look at her record

Newsday (1/7/24) gave the same treatment to Republican hopeful Mazi Malesa Pilip.

Likewise, for Pilip, Newsday (1/7/24) reported:

Pilip was born in Ethiopia in 1979, and immigrated to Israel with her family in 1991. Their move, she said, came during Operation Solomon, a covert 36-hour mission by the Israeli government to resettle persecuted Ethiopian Jews amid a civil war. While there are no available documents listing the roughly 15,000 evacuees, Pilip, whose maiden name is Melesa, was 12 in May 1991, when the airlift mission was executed, records show, and she spoke publicly about her journey for many years before running for elected office.

And further:

Pilip enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces, shortly after her 18th birthday, part of compulsory military service for young people in Israel, Newsday confirmed.

Copies of IDF records that Pilip showed Newsday indicate her service began in October 1997 and ended in July 1999 when she was 20.

And also:

Pilip has referred to herself on social media profiles as a “former paratrooper.”

The documents reviewed by Newsday show Pilip served in a weaponry role in the IDF paratroopers brigade, achieving a rank that is roughly equivalent to that of sergeant in the American military.

‘Financial questions remain’

 In Race to Replace George Santos, Financial Questions Re-emerge

The New York Times (1/15/24) noted that inconsistencies in Pilip’s financial disclosures “seemed nowhere near the level of Mr. Santos’s widespread misstatements, which prompted federal prosecutors to charge him with falsifying congressional records before he was expelled.”

In this investigatory spirit, the New York Times (1/15/24) ran an article headlined: “In the Campaign to Replace Santos, Financial Questions Remain.” It began:

The Republican nominee in a special House election to replace George Santos in New York provided a hazy glimpse into her personal finances last week, submitting a sworn financial statement to Congress that prompted questions and led her to amend the filing.

This piece by Nicholas Fandos said:

The little-known candidate, Mazi Pilip, reported between $1 million and $5.2 million in assets, largely comprising her husband’s medical practice and Bitcoin investments. In an unusual disclosure, she said the couple owed and later repaid as much as $250,000 to the IRS last year.

But the initial financial report Ms. Pilip filed with the House Ethics Committee on Wednesday appeared to be missing other important required information, including whether the assets were owned solely by herself or her husband, Dr. Adalbert Pilip, or whether they were owned jointly.

As to Suozzi, he “filed his own report on Friday showing more than $600,000 in income in 2023 as a consultant and a board member of Global Industrial Corp., a Long Island–based industrial supply company.”

Further, reported the Times:

He disclosed assets worth between $4.2 million and $6.3 million, much of them tied up in real estate investments. Mr. Suozzi also owns an interest in summer camps owned by Jay Jacobs, the New York Democratic Party chairman, that paid dividends worth between $100,000 and $1 million.

But, the Times added: “The House disclosure forms ask filers to disclose assets in ranges, making it difficult to determine exact values.”

Long-needed new chapter

Whether it was looking into Suozzi’s graduations from college, law school and even high school, or Pilip’s background in Israel, or the Times examining federal financial filings of the two—post-Santos, they are perhaps examples of a long-needed new journalistic chapter.

Santos was a part of a period of US history when disinformation has become a major component of politics—with his hero, Trump, a preeminent practitioner of falsehoods.

Media that closely and carefully examine claims of politicians, and in a timely manner report to the people about what is found—exposing the lies and the liars, or confirming what was claimed—are critical for keeping our democracy.