NEW YORK — FBI agents are investigating Rep. George Santos’ role in an alleged GoFundMe scheme involving a disabled U.S. Navy veteran’s dying service dog.
Two agents contacted former service member Richard Osthoff Wednesday on behalf of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York, he told POLITICO.
Osthoff gave the agents text messages from 2016 with Santos, who he says used his plight to raise $3,000 for life-saving surgery for the pit bull mix, Sapphire — then ghosted with the funds, as first reported by Patch.
“I’m glad to get the ball rolling with the big-wigs,” Osthoff said in an interview Wednesday. “I was worried that what happened to me was too long ago to be prosecuted.”
The alleged fundraising scheme is one of many scandals plaguing the freshman Republican, who has refused to leave office despite a series of allegations of lying and fraud that first came to light in December shortly after he won a swing seat on Long Island.
New York Democratic Reps. Ritchie Torres and Daniel Goldman, who called for a Federal Election Commission investigation into Santos’ campaign finances last month, welcomed the news that the Eastern District investigation is proceeding at a serious clip.
“Only the U.S. attorneys are capable of moving at the speed that’s necessary,” Torres said in an interview.
“There’s no one that poses a greater threat in Congress than Santos. It’s undeniable that he’s broken the law. We have to protect Congress from George Santos, who threatens it from within,” Torres said.
Goldman, an ex-federal prosecutor who has a seat on the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, echoed Torres’ comments in a separate interview.
“Given that a serial liar like Santos is still walking the halls of the Capitol, it is imperative that the Justice Department move quickly to determine whether an indictment is appropriate.”
On Tuesday, Santos stepped down from his Congressional committee assignments, telling colleagues he was trying to avoid becoming a further “distraction” for House Republicans. The announcement followed a meeting a day earlier with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who declined to disclose the reason for the discussion.
McCarthy made his strongest statement yet on Santos last week. He told Capitol Hill reporters that if Santos is found to have broken the law by the House Ethics Committee he will be removed from Congress.
Joshua Schiller, a senior trial lawyer who has practiced in the Eastern District, said the veteran’s encounter with Santos could offer prosecutors a quick way to hit the Republican congressman with criminal charges even though they’re also investigating heftier possible financial crimes.
“I think there is an urgency here because Santos is currently in a position to make laws,” Schiller said. “I can think of examples where the government used a lesser indictment to seize assets and try to cause the defendant to plea to a deal before bringing a second or third indictment on more serious charges, and I bet that is the case here.”
Santos’ attorney, Joseph Murray, declined to comment. Santos has previously said he merely exaggerated portions of his resume and denied that he broke any laws.
Spokespeople for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York and the FBI did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Osthoff was sleeping in a tent on the side of the road in New Jersey in 2016 when a veterinary technician connected him with a pet charity. Anthony Devolder, who ran Friends of Pets United, promised to help Osthoff get a tumor removed from his dog’s stomach, the veteran said.
Devolder, a version of Santos’ full name he used before entering politics, set up the GoFundMe account and promoted it on social media saying, “When a veteran reaches out to ask for help, how can you say no?” according to screenshots of the postings.
When the account had reached its $3,000 goal, Devolder gave a series of excuses about why he couldn’t help Sapphire get treatment, then became difficult to reach, text messages between the two show.
Osthoff says Santos deliberately used his story of being a homeless disabled veteran with a sickly service dog to extract donations, then took off with the funds, leaving him unable to afford Sapphire’s surgery.
Osthoff said the experience was so traumatic it prompted him to contemplate suicide. Sapphire died from the tumor in 2017.
Friends of Pets United was not a registered charity, The New York Times reported in December when it first broke the story that Santos had fabricated much of his campaign biography.
Schiller said the GoFundMe allegations could result in several types of charges, including wire and mail fraud as well as bank fraud. Santos could have also committed tax crimes if he claimed exemptions for an unregistered charity, Schiller said.
CBS News first reported that federal investigators in New York were “looking into” Santos following the Times articles and other reporting that raised more questions about his background and how he funded a successful run that flipped his Long Island district from blue to red in November.
Last week, the Department of Justice asked the FEC to pause any enforcement action against Santos as the department worked on its own case, according to a report last week in the Washington Post.
Over $700,000 Santos initially listed as a personal loan to his campaign may have been an illegal straw donor scheme, according to FEC complaints.
The New York Attorney General’s office, as well as the Queens and Nassau County district attorneys, are also probing Santos.
Osthoff said the New York Attorney General’s Office Public Integrity Bureau, which handles fraud and criminal inquiries into elected officials, began investigating the GoFundMe drive last month.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Tish James said on Dec. 22 that her office was “looking into” several issues surrounding Santos, but did not get into specifics. The Attorney General’s office did not reply to questions about the status of its GoFundMe inquiry.
A spokesperson for GoFundMe declined to comment on specifics, but indicated the company has been cooperating with ongoing investigations.
Joe Anuta contributed to this report.