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Scripps News investigates George Santos' $199.99 campaign spending

It began with a series of false claims he made about his work history and education, and now he’s being investigated for campaign transactions.
Posted at 5:22 AM, Feb 02, 2023

George Santos has been on Capitol Hill for less than a month, but he has already been under more scrutiny than many members face in a career. 

"How many times do I have to answer the same question? Yes, I’m not going," Santos said.

It began with a series of false claims he made about his work history and education, and now he’s being investigated for campaign transactions — all for the same exact amount. 

$199.99 — that’s just one penny below the Federal Election Commission threshold that requires candidates to preserve all receipts for expenses greater than $200.

Adav Noti is the senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group focused on campaign finance laws based in Washington.  

We told him our investigation had turned up that same number in Santos’ campaign expenses 37 times — totaling over $7,000.

"No other campaign in the country, anywhere or the hundreds of other people ran for Congress, were reported spending anywhere near that frequency at that exact amount. It sets up red flags. It's, it's implausible to the point of being essentially impossible," Noti said. 

Scripps News dove into the most recent FEC data and discovered a few other candidates in 2022 did report spending $199 a handful of times, but no other campaign came close to Santos in terms of the volume of these expenses. In fact, our investigation found Santos reported spending $199.99 more times than all the other 2022 campaigns combined. 

We learned his campaign made nine separate payments to big box stores: Target, BJs, Best Buy, Walmart and Staples months apart — each for exactly $199.99. There were seven different trips on Amtrak, Delta, American Airlines — also all for $199.99.  And then, multiple Ubers — five rides, months apart, each for exactly $199.99.  

"Anybody who's taken an Uber or a taxi of any kind, I can say, the chances that you end up with the exactly the same charge multiple for multiple fares. Seems, seems a strain in credulity," Noti said. 

When asked is it possible that somebody could have a bill, and then just tip enough to make it come out to the number, Noti said, "Sure. Once."

It was a lot more than once — and there were a wide range of expenses: three different hotels in cities across the country including $199.99 at the W Hotel in South Beach in Miami — we couldn’t find a room there advertised for less than about $600. And Santos' campaign said it paid $199.99 for parking at JFK Airport, but the Campaign Legal Center noted in its complaint to the FEC that "there is no combination of fees from that airport parking facility that would end in .99 (cents)." 

Arguably the biggest head-scratcher of all revolves around this New York restaurant, known as II Bacco. We learned Santos had a relationship with the owners and they contributed more than $5,850 to his campaign. On election night, his campaign racked up nearly $19,000 in debt at the restaurant.   

Over the course of his congressional run, Santos expensed more than 31 transactions at this one restaurant. The campaign reported seven separate visits, each expensed for exactly $199.99, including this past November when Santos' campaign expensed that amount twice — on a single day.  

"I think those charges are probably fictitious, or perhaps they or legitimate charges in the sense that they get paid to disperse $199 to the restaurant all those times. But if that's the case, that the money was almost certainly going to something else, not to meals, where that wouldn't be, you know, law enforcement will need to take a look into that," Noti said.

All of these $199 expenses are pretty small compared to the millions of dollars Santos spent during his campaign, but Noti says federal investigators will want to determine whether they reflect a deliberate effort to mislead the FEC.   

He told us that’s why Santos’ treasurer, who according to FEC guidelines "must ensure committee reports are complete, accurate, and timely" is also currently under scrutiny from watchdog groups like his.  

"The buck does not always stop with the candidate when it comes to reporting campaign finance information. The primary responsibility is with the campaign treasurer. And in this case, it does look like the campaign treasurer may have some legal exposure herself in her personal capacity," Noti said.