NEW YORK – Rep. George Santos was charged with theft in Pennsylvania’s Amish Country in 2017 after a series of bad checks were written in his name to dog breeders, according to the court and a lawyer friend who helped him address the charge.
Just days after $15,125 in checks were made out for “puppies,” according to the memo lines, Santos held an adoption event at a Staten Island pet store with his animal rescue charity Friends of Pets United, according to the store’s Instagram account and a person who attended the event.
The charge was dismissed and his record expunged after Santos claimed someone had stolen his checkbook, according to the court and the lawyer.
The Pennsylvania theft charge, which has not previously been reported, is the latest revelation in a dizzying array of scandals for the beleaguered New York congressman, who fabricated much of his campaign biography. Santos is facing at least five law enforcement probes including an FBI investigation into his role in a service dog charity scheme tied to Friends of Pets United and a Brazilian fraud case.
Santos has said he merely fabricated parts of his résumé and has denied breaking any laws. A spokesperson and a lawyer for Santos did not respond to a request for comment.
A chance encounter with a former classmate
Attorney Tiffany Bogosian, who attended middle school with Santos but eventually fell out of touch with her classmate, ran into him at a Queens Starbucks in late 2019, she told POLITICO.
Santos told her he just lost a bid for Congress. Several weeks later, she said, Santos asked for help: He’d been awakened by a 4 a.m. knock on the door of his Queens home from NYPD officers who served him with an extradition warrant related to the Pennsylvania theft charge, he told her. On Feb. 15, 2020 she said he stopped by Bogosian’s New York office, where she tried to help him with some legal advice as a friend.
Santos said his checkbook had gone missing in 2017 and blamed someone he knew for its disappearance, she recalled. He told Bogosian he “canceled the checkbook” with TD Bank as soon as he’d noticed it was gone, just “days after getting it.”
Bogosian said one of the NYPD detectives told her and Santos they should contact a Pennsylvania state trooper about the warrant.
The NYPD referred questions about the warrant to Pennsylvania State Police, who said it doesn’t comment on prior investigations.
At her office in February 2020, Bogosian sent an email to “Trooper Adams” on Santos’ behalf, according to a copy of the message she shared with POLITICO.
In the email, Borgosian argued Santos’ case, as he’d relayed it to her.
“In 2017 he received four check books for the account at his request from the TD BANK branch he banked with in Queens, NY, and of the four one went missing,” Bogosian wrote to the Pennsylvania trooper.
“He immediately called his bank upon learning 1/4 check books was missing and all checks were canceled at that time, with a stop pay on all checks.”
“As such no checks were ever cashed or presented against his account due to his cancellation of all checks linked to this account. The account was closed on March 3, 2018, for personal reasons unrelated to any alleged fraud on his account (banking preference),” Bogosian wrote.
She attached copies of the nine canceled checks to eight different people and corresponding bank statements from Santos’ account showing a negative balance of $690 on Nov. 4, 2017 and another negative balance of $349 on Dec. 3, 2017.
She noted to the trooper that the signatures were different on each of the checks and attached Santos’ New York State driver’s license to show his signature on that ID didn’t match any of the ones on the checks. She wrote that Santos was clearly a victim of fraud — but hadn’t realized it until he was served with the warrant because he’d canceled the checks and later closed the account.
Santos told Bogosian, because he was involved in politics, he couldn’t have an outstanding charge against him. A week after their meeting, he went to Pennsylvania to address the warrant, and told prosecutors that he “worked for the S.E.C.,” successfully persuading them to drop the charges, she remembered him telling her after he returned.
Bogosian said she didn’t learn why the Pennsylvania State Police couldn’t locate Santos until 2020, or how they ultimately found him in Queens, but said the trooper seemed happy to have “finally found” Santos when she talked to him on the phone after she sent the email.
Bogosian said she now doesn’t believe Santos’ story, after what happened a few months later.
Bogosian told The Washington Post last month that she introduced a personal injury client who’d won a big settlement to Santos in late 2020 after he’d promised lucrative investment opportunities. Santos tried to get the client, Christian Lopez, to invest with Harbor City Capital, a Florida firm where he worked that the Securities and Exchange Commission later said was a Ponzi scheme. Her client demurred, telling CNN the rate of return promised by Santos sounded too good to be true.
Santos has said he wasn’t aware of any illegality at the firm and is not named in the SEC complaint.
“I did think it was so weird at the time that his checks didn’t have his address or phone number listed on them. After the dinner with Christian [Lopez] I started having second thoughts, I thought, 'Oh, he had the animal adoptions.' To be honest, even at the time I questioned it,” she said, but she ultimately took Santos at his word.
Theft by deception charge
A representative from York County District Court in Pennsylvania confirmed Santos was charged in November 2017 with theft by deception, but said the record was expunged on Nov. 24, 2021. No further information about why the charge was expunged could be given, the representative said.
One of Santos’ bounced checks was written out to Jacob Stoltzfus, a dog breeder in Bird-in-Hand, Pa., in the amount of $775 for “puppy” and dated Nov. 22, 2017, according to a copy of the check obtained by POLITICO. Stoltzfus said that would have been a typical amount for one of his purebred dogs at the time.
The recipients attempted to cash the checks at Coatesville Savings Bank and Bank of Bird-in-Hand in Pennsylvania.
Just three days after the $775 check is dated — on Nov. 25, 2017 — Santos’ animal charity Friends of Pets United held a puppy adoption event at the Staten Island pet store Pet Oasis.
“Friends of Pets United has a puppy overload … We’ll be cuddling: Golden Retriever, Lab, Yorkie, Border collie, American Eskimo and Shepherds … #adoptdontshop,” an Instagram post from Pet Oasis read.
The New York Times reported this week that Santos had an unusual request for the pet store owner Daniel Avissato after an adoption event at Pet Oasis. He asked Avissato to make a check with the proceeds out to his name instead of the name of the charity. Avissato said he refused, but later noticed — when he looked at his bank records — that the check had been changed to the way Santos wanted it, according to the Times.
Later that same year, in December 2017, Michele Vazzo said she met Santos at Pet Oasis when she adopted a puppy at another event. Santos told her the golden retriever was rescued from an Amish puppy mill. There were many dogs at the charity events, and adoption costs ranged from $300 to $400, she recalled.
“The fees were always different and he always had a ton of puppies and a ton of people helping him,” Vazzo said in an interview.
Santos told her different stories about where the puppies came from, sometimes saying he found pregnant dogs on the street and other times claiming he rescued them in Puerto Rico or other places, she said.
After Vazzo adopted her puppy, Santos asked her to volunteer for his charity to foster dogs and coordinate adoption events. She grew disillusioned with him after she said she fostered an estimated 30 dogs in one month, but the only help Santos offered was some money for paper towels.
The charity was not a registered nonprofit or rescue group, according to The New York Times.