Micah Loewinger: Shortly after being expelled from Congress last Friday after a House Ethics Committee report found there was "substantial evidence" that he had broken multiple laws, disgraced liar, George Santos, found himself a new gig on Cameo
Speaker 2: Cameo, a site where you can pay people for personal messages, like from celebrities. Santos's profile, calling him a former congressional icon. That's what it says.
Micah Loewinger: This week, Democratic Senator, John Fetterman, ponied up $343.20 cents to buy a message from Santos to send to his colleague Bob Menendez, the senator from New Jersey, who has been accused of taking bribes and secretly aiding the Egyptian government.
George Santos: Hey, Bobby. Look, I don't think I need to tell you, but these people that want to make you get in trouble and want to kick you out and make you run away, you make them put up or shut up. You stand your ground, sir. Stay strong. Merry Christmas.
Micah Loewinger: As with everything George Santos touches, his expulsion from Congress has turned into yet another sideshow which is equal parts silly and gross. Since he hopefully will recede from public view now, we thought it would be a good moment to reflect on how we got here. It was almost exactly a year ago, December 19th, to be precise, that Santos's lies were first revealed in a story by New York Times reporters, Grace Ashford and Michael Gold.
The newly elected Long Island Congressman, it turned out, was not who he said he was when it came to his family background, the charities he was associated with, or his wealth. It was a bombshell report, but at the North Shore Leader, a small local paper in George Santos' district on Long Island, the story was nothing new. In January of this year, The New Yorker Radio Hour ran a story about the Leader, reported by New Yorker staff writer Clare Malone.
Clare Malone: I went out to Long Island to meet with Grant Lally, who is the publisher of the North Shore Leader, and also with Maureen Daly, who is the managing editor of the paper.
Maureen Daly: Hi, can I help you?
Clare Malone: Yes. I'm Clare Malone. Are you Maureen?
Maureen Daly: I am.
Clare Malone: Maureen, lovely to meet you.
Maureen Daly: [inaudible 00:02:15] How are you?
Clare Malone: I'm good.
Maureen Daly: We're probably going to bring you into the conference room. Do you mind if I [inaudible 00:02:20] [crosstalk]
Speaker 6: No. Wherever you want to go.
Clare Malone: The North Shore Leader serves a wealthy, pretty white suburban area of Long Island, and it has about a circulation of 5,000. It's pretty small.
Grant Lally: This is a cutting-edge story about a Christmas tree lighting. [laughs]
Clare Malone: It says Merry Christmas, happy holidays across the [unintelligible 00:02:40]
Grant Lally: I believe this is the Oyster Bay. Downtown Oyster Bay, Main Street Associations, holiday celebration. They have a--
Clare Malone: Your four lead stories are, World Cup Party, Thieves Are Very Busy, New Year's Eve in Glen Cove, and Bayville Lights The Menorah.
Grant Lally: That's it. That's it. I guess our top story inside is, The Leader Told You So. It said the Leader told you. US rep elect George Santos is a fraud and wanted criminal and we published this just a couple of days after the Times piece came out.
Clare Malone: Grant Lally, the publisher, is a lawyer by trade, but he is also someone who's in politics. He's run three times for the same congressional seat that George Santos is now sitting in. Grant is pretty connected and involved in local Republican politics out there. I've already spotted two Reagan [unintelligible 00:03:39] How many more?
Grant Lally: My dad did that.
Maureen Daly: His dad sculpted.
Grant Lally: My dad sculpted that.
Clare Malone: No way.
Grant Lally: That one he didn't do.
Clare Malone: The Teddy Roosevelt.
Grant Lally: He had a sculpture manufacturing company at one time.
Clare Malone: No way. The paper has endorsed Democrats before. They endorsed incumbent Tom Suozzi for this seat previously, who is a Democrat. In 2022, the paper endorsed Robert Zimmerman, who was Santos's Democratic opponent.
Grant Lally: When my dad bought the paper, there was somebody, and she passed away, but she came with the paper. She was Tom Suozzi's babysitter when he was a baby.
Grant Lally: We could never endorse against Tom Suozzi.
Clare Malone: That's amazing. When did you first become aware of George Santos?
Grant Lally: I got a telephone call from someone who had helped me out in my campaign and said she was working with George Santos. Could we please meet and have lunch?
Clare Malone: What year is this?
Grant Lally: This was January of 2020. It was down the street at the Carl Place Diner. I went down, I had lunch with them. George Santos was sitting back glowing in the attention and he was bizarre, it would be the best description. He was very boastful and very evasive. I had run for this seat before and we had the newspaper. It was a dual role. He was looking for help and support and advice.
At the same time, it wasn't an interview, but I was sizing him up for coverage in the future. I asked him at the time. I had friends from Brazil. I know a bit about Brazilian society and he boasted about his finance, about being in finance and being a very successful, wealthy financier. He was only 32 at the time, maybe 31 at the time, so very young, and bragging about his millions. It didn't click, it didn't mesh with truthfulness.
Clare Malone: I noticed that you guys didn't endorse him in 2020.
Grant Lally: Correct.
Clare Malone: Did you know anything was concretely amiss or was it more just a feeling?
Grant Lally: He was not a serious candidate in 2020. It was Tom Suozzi. It was the same district I ran in, but Tom Suozzi was well established. He was the former county executive. Santos really ran that year as a throw, as a non-serious candidate. He was just some guy running. He was Brazilian. Nobody's ever run a Brazilian before. It was almost like an outreach candidate. Let's see what he can do. He was openly gay. I think he's the first person they ran in the county who was openly gay. It was really, let's give him [unintelligible 00:06:32] see what he can do. No one at any level expected him to be competitive or certainly not to win.
Clare Malone: Sure. Fast forward two years, there's redistricting that happens with the third district.
Grant Lally: Two things. This is actually the key to the whole thing this year, is everyone expects, meaning everyone, all the political pros, all the political people expected that you have a one-party Democratic government in New York state. Anytime you have a one-party government in any state, they will redistrict the lines to favor their party. It's called gerrymandering. In February of 2022, the legislature came out with a map that was heavily gerrymandered to favor the Democrats.
The governor signed it and this district, the third district went from a three-county reasonably competitive seat into a five-county completely non-competitive seat that wrapped around through Queens, up through the Bronx, along the shore in Westchester, and then for whatever, and I still want to know who designed it, but shot a tentacle up to Westchester Airport, got to Westchester airport, went halfway down the runway and stopped. It was not a competitive seat. He wanted to run for it and nobody else wanted to.
Clare Malone: Just to clarify, not competitive favoring Democrats.
Grant Lally: It was a democratic seat. No Republican could've won it. It doesn't matter whether red wave year or no red wave year, that was a democratic seat. He's running for it. No other candidate filed. Then the New York State Court of Appeals, the top court, issued a decision throwing out the map, claiming it was too partisan, and that they also had not followed the proper procedures under New York law for a redistricting commission to meet. Basically, people boycotted and didn't allow the commission to meet. The Court of Appeals threw it out, said there's no time. Legislature was actually enjoined and barred from trying to weigh in at that point. The court issued a brand new map for New York State.
Clare Malone: At that point, the Republican Party around here has already canceled the local primary and George Santos is the presumed candidate.
Grant Lally: They gave a very short window, about 10 days, for if anyone else wants to jump in and wage a primary, you have 10 days to stand up a congressional campaign, raise a million dollars, go out and collect 2,000 signatures.
Clare Malone: Grant, did you consider it?
Grant Lally: I talked to a few people about it, because I could see instantly that the new district was a marginally Republican district.
Clare Malone: I was browsing the website and I saw there's one headline, Mass Thugs Rob Store in Huntington, national crime. Was crime a big issue out here? What were the things that were resonating with Republican voters?
Maureen Daly: I think crime definitely was. The biggest stories are the local, often the students, the success stories, but I'd say the second most important thing to the readers is the crime.
Clare Malone: For listeners who would be unfamiliar, can you talk a little bit about the issues that George Santos brought up, or was it mostly he had an interesting biography? What was it about Santos that resonated over the Democrats?
Grant Lally: What was interesting was he really didn't run. This is part of what we saw, which really nobody else, frankly even in other parts of the region saw, is that there was no campaign. He did nothing. There was not a campaign office open, not a lawn sign printed or put on a lawn, not a mailer sent to people's homes, not a TV commercial on television, not a radio ad on-- nothing until Labor Day. If you walked around in August, you have no idea, had no idea who George Santos is, you wouldn't even know his name, and this is what we saw.
We pulled his campaign filings, his campaign finance disclosures, and he claimed to have already spent over a million dollars on a congressional campaign. Some people run entire congressional campaigns on a million dollars or less. He, by August, with nothing, claims he already spent a million dollars. That was a disconnect that we saw and we said, "There's something really wrong here."
Maureen Daly: It's like what did you do with the million we gave you last week? Where'd it go, and you do look at the filings. What is great with the FEC and with our system is you do have to record everything up to that $199.99 that can go without being detailed. There were so many expenses that were just $199.99. I don't have to tell you what I spent that on. That's just a red flag that says, "Wait a second here. You can't be buying everything for $199.99."
Grant Lally: We heard story after story after story about him doing bizarre things, about bragging about his mansions.
Clare Malone: You hear the story and you say--
Grant Lally: We hear these stories and we know everybody, meaning we know a lot of people in the district, and so Santos would tell one lie to one person and another lie to another person. We would hear from both of those people, compare notes and realize he's making all of this up. He's a total liar. When you know he's a total liar, then you start looking more closely. Look, he was so well-known, at least in the more active political circles, to be a liar that by early summer, he was already being called George Scamtos.
Clare Malone: Did you talk to Democrats about the weirdness with Santos?
Grant Lally: The DCCC, the Democratic posted a, I thought very weak bit of research on Santos, so we looked at that. It was about 75 pages or so, but most of it was pretty much boilerplate. It raised a lot of the questions that we had, but didn't really provide answers. He put down in, I believe it was February of 2022 that he loaned his campaign. He personally loaned his campaign $700,000. Now, this is a guy who had no assets, zero assets just 18 months before. That was disclosed in his 2020 personal financial disclosures, plus--
Clare Malone: He made like $55,000 a year.
Grant Lally: Yes, made 55,000. Where did $1.5 million in earnings come from?
Clare Malone: By the way, do we know anything about that $700,000?
Grant Lally: Look, I suspect, my suspicion is that it's fake. That he just put it down. It never happened, but he put it down on the reports to try to enhance himself so he could go to wealthy people on the North Shore, tell them he's Jewish, and tell them all sorts of lies and say, "I really need money, and I put 700,000 of my own money in. I'm wealthy like you are, but I really need your help too."
Clare Malone: How did this blatant of a lie happen? Does some fault come to the local GOP where they just never--
Grant Lally: Look, congressional campaigns are by law separate legal entities. The local parties cannot finance, cannot control congressional campaigns.
Clare Malone: The story comes out in September, what's the reaction? What do you hear?
Grant Lally: Different reactions. Some people said, "Oh, we knew this all along. This is not surprising."
Clare Malone: George Scamtos.
Grant Lally: George Scamtos, we've been calling him that already. Some people said, "Yes, we understand it." Other people were hostile. We got a lot of negative pushback from some local Republican party officials.
Maureen Daly: We had people outraged. What are you attacking our own for? We will still get them. We're hearing them in social media and all, "This was a Republican, why would you say anything against him?" The truth is the truth, and we didn't write his history, he did. We exposed it, yes, but there was some feedback from the party, from lifelong people who've worked to get people elected their whole life, volunteered and all that. There was a bit of a you shouldn't have done this.
Clare Malone: This is a bigger question, but we're obviously in the era of super partisan politics. There's a lot of very Republican towns out here. What makes a Republican truly unelectable?
Grant Lally: If they knew in June what they know now, he would never have been the nominee. He was running as a sacrificial candidate when really it was hard to find anyone else to run, and then suddenly the New York State Court of Appeals transforms what was a [crosstalk]
Clare Malone: Transforms a cannon fodder into a congressman.
Grant Lally: Yes, from cannon fire into a congressman. That's a great-- I like that.
Clare Malone: There you go.
Grant Lally: I like that. That's great.
Clare Malone: That's the movie title.
Clare Malone: Did the story just not get traction in the way that you thought it might?
Grant Lally: Well, Robert Zimmerman called-- I know he tried very hard when we put these stories out to promote the stories to the daily newspapers. I don't know exactly what he did. He told me at one point he sent 85,000 social media blasts out, and he sent daily reports on what we had reported to the major daily newspapers.
Clare Malone: As a media reporter, to me that's very interesting. You write the story in September, the Democratic candidate is aware of it. You get some pushback from local Republicans, the guy still wins in November. December comes and The New York Times publishes this investigation into Santos that has some of the stuff that you guys had, but also goes a little further of lying about jobs, lying about a pet charity.
Grant Lally: It was great journalism. The New York Times did great work on this. It's also reflective that if you have the resources and you can put a team of reporters, you can do the research and the background research and dig up these materials. This wasn't an easy bit of reporting. This was reporting in the United States and reporting in Brazil.
Clare Malone: When you saw that story, or when you saw it, Maureen, was there any saltiness or, "Oh, I wish we could've pushed it harder," or was it sort of, "Oh, okay."
Grant Lally: No. I was actually very happy to see it come out because it really vindicated us, because George Santos was running around telling people openly that he was going to sue us and he was going to shut us down for having published the expose that we published on him.
Clare Malone: Did you ever have any worry about that?
Grant Lally: No, because everything was well sourced and we had backup for everything we said.
Clare Malone: Did you ever hear from George Santos after that original September story or just [unintelligible 00:17:50]
Grant Lally: I have not spoken to George Santos, and he would not even speak to us after we endorsed Tom Suozzi in 2020.
Clare Malone: Have you guys talked to The New York Times, the people who broke the story?
Grant Lally: Yes. I've spoken to Grace Ashford.
Clare Malone: You weren't credited in that story. Was there any bad feeling about that?
Grant Lally: It's a competitive world. I'm glad that they followed through on the story we started. It would've been nice to be credited.
Clare Malone: To that end, you guys have been doing a lot of press around this story.
Grant Lally: Oh my God, it's killing me. It's just killing me.
Clare Malone: Is it helping subscribership or circulation at all?
Grant Lally: Yes, it definitely-- The newspaper has gotten a lot of attention and good attention, so it's actually very gratifying to get that.
Maureen Daly: The social media is just blowing out of the water. We're just constantly getting new subscribers, new followers, and great comments, great follow up, direct messages congratulating us and thanking us for doing the story.
Grant Lally: It is disappointing that George Santos was elected even though we had exposed these massive issues with him, but he actually trailed Lee Zeldin by three to four points behind Lee Zeldin in this district. Lee Zeldin got almost 58% in this district. He got 54%. It did have an impact. The shame of it is a lot of people just vote reflexively. They just vote one party or the other, and so they say you could run anyone or anything on a ballot, and they would still get 40% of the vote, because people don't think about it.
Clare Malone: The depth and breadth of the lies are so tremendous, I don't know. What does this say about us that this guy has got all the way into Congress?
Maureen Daly: I think it says basically, we want to believe and we're always looking for that person to check all the boxes for us. Maybe that's unrealistic. I come from Brooklyn, so we have that kind of if it's too good, it's too good.
Clare Malone: Was the Ed Koch thing you were saying earlier?
Maureen Daly: Oh, Ed Koch always said that, "Pick your top 10 issues. If you agree with me on six of them, vote for me. If you agree with me on 10, have your head examined."
Clare Malone: Have you noticed that people read less local news? Is it about the same? Has there been any change on--
Grant Lally: I think they read about the same. We have a really loyal readership. Our website traffic is up 31,000%, I think.
Maureen Daly: It's [unintelligible 00:20:37]
Grant Lally: Somebody asked me, I said, "I know there's smoke coming out of the server."
Micah Loewinger: Claire Malone is a staff writer for The New Yorker. This story first aired in January of this year. Thanks for listening to the midweek podcast. Is there a topic or story you'd like to hear OTM cover in 2024? Send us questions, tips, and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love to hear from you. I'm Micah Loewinger.
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