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Rep.-elect George Santos of New York is being investigated for lying about his past

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If a politician lies, does it amount to a crime? George Santos, a newly elected lawmaker from Long Island, faces that question. He admits he did not work where he claimed or study where he claimed or have the faith that he claimed. He initially denied a New York Times report about all this, but now says he exaggerated a bit. He spoke with Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

GEORGE SANTOS: I'm not a fraud. I'm not a fake. I didn't materialize from thin air. I made some mistakes.

INSKEEP: A Republican prosecutor in New York has now opened a probe of Santos' deceptions. NPR's Brian Mann is following this story and joins us now. Brian, what were some of the exaggerations?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Well, it's a long and kind of baffling list of deceptions, Steve. He claimed he graduated from Baruch College, now admits that's not true; claimed he worked for major Wall Street banks - also not true. He claimed four of his employees died in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Miami - not true; claimed to own valuable real estate - that's not true. And a big one - he claimed his family escaped the Holocaust. That's not true. And he claimed to be a proud Jewish American but now acknowledges being Catholic, though he still says he has some Jewish ancestors. That, again, is a claim a group called the Republican Jewish Coalition calls deceptive.

INSKEEP: What does the prosecutor say about this?

MANN: Well, the Office of Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly - this is a Republican - she released a statement describing Santos' lies as nothing short of stunning. Donnelly has promised to investigate and says - and I'm quoting here - "if a crime was committed in this county, we will prosecute it."

INSKEEP: However, if lying, by itself, was a crime, an awful lot more people would be in jail, including maybe some members of Congress. What would the crime be here?

MANN: Yeah, well, as you point out, the Constitution does have rules about who can be sworn in, Steve, as a member of Congress. Dishonesty alone is not a deal breaker, but there are campaign laws. And the question now is whether Santos did anything criminal. A lot of attention focused - $700,000 loan that Santos gave to his own campaign. He now admits living in poverty much of his life and being unable to pay his bills. So the question is, where did all that money come from? I spoke about this with Richard Briffault, an expert on campaign law at Columbia University.

RICHARD BRIFFAULT: So it would be serious if instead - if this was not truly a loan, but this was somehow disguised campaign contributions from other people. That's a crime to knowingly and willfully misreport the sources of your funds, as well as to lie to the federal government.

MANN: Now, Santos has said in interviews that he broke no laws. He says this was his own money he loaned to his campaign. But his financial history now faces close scrutiny, and Democrats are calling on the Federal Election Commission to also investigate.

INSKEEP: So lying about the money would be the crime. But there are other lies to get our brains around here, Brian, one of which he says is not a lie. He says, well, he just didn't speak all that clearly about his religion.

MANN: Yeah, this piece is sparking a lot of outrage. The Republican Jewish Coalition now says Santos directly misled them about his heritage. They say Santos is no longer welcome at any of their functions. Some Republican leaders are acknowledging this as pretty explosive. The head of the Nassau County Republican committee, a guy named Joseph Cairo Jr., released a statement saying - and I'm quoting here, Steve - "the damage that Santos' lies have caused to many people, especially those who've been impacted by the Holocaust, are profound." In interviews, Santos now says he always described himself as Jew-ish. That's his phrase - sort of, I guess, a claim to be sort of Jewish. But that explanation is not going over well.

INSKEEP: What are other Republican-ish leaders saying about this scandal?

MANN: Well, they're mostly silent at this point. Some have called for investigation by the House Ethics Committee, but none are saying that Santos shouldn't be sworn in. Santos' win on Long Island, remember, helped Republicans capture a narrow majority in the House. And Congressman Kevin McCarthy had praised Santos' victory, but now he's mostly gone silent. It's worth noting here that Santos promised to back McCarthy for House speaker. McCarthy's still scrambling to round up enough GOP support to win that post. So despite this controversy, Santos could wind up being a really key vote next week, helping decide the House leadership.

INSKEEP: He could be a decisive vote. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Brian Mann