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George Santos and the failure of imagination

Madeline Monroe/Associated Press-Mary Altaffer

Everyone loves a good story. And one of the most popular is the fall from grace. The great athlete who holds on too long and ends his career in mediocrity. The visionary artist who reaches the height of influence only to lose it all with incomprehensible and reprehensible public rantings. Or the politician who soars to success on an uplifting narrative — promising a share of the American Dream he has created for himself to those who follow him — only to be revealed as an apparent fraud and serial liar. Schadenfreude can provide real pleasure.

By any measure, the New York Times broke a doozy of a story last month with its reporting of the fabrications and predations of George Santos, the Republican from Long Island who won election to Congress in a reliably Democratic district. A man who supposedly was the son of immigrants and rose through Baruch College and NYU to jobs with Wall Street titans Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. A man reportedly with a family-run $80 million asset management firm and real estate empire. A man whose pet rescue organization was said to have saved thousands of dogs and cats. And according to a widening web of reporting from the Times and other outlets — and now even by his own admission — a man who apparently fabricated much — if not all — of his life’s story.  

Why did it take so long for the truth to come out? Surely, various parties had an interest in knowing the truth before election day: voters in New York’s 3rd Congressional district; Democrats desperate to hold on to the House; Republicans worried about candidate quality; donors on each side of the aisle who poured over $6 million into the race.

As journalists found — once they gave it a thorough look — Santos’s apparent fabulism was eminently detectable. His life story — in his own telling — was a daring feat of self-invention and pure imagination, full of inconsistencies and omissions. As the Times and CNN reported, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Baruch College, and NYU had no record of Santos as an employee or student. The IRS had no record of his charity. There seemed to be no discernable profile for his family firm or purported real estate holdings. While he claimed four of his employees were killed in the June 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a review of the professional histories of all 49 victims did not show any connection. While living in Brazil, he was reportedly arrested and charged with bouncing a check. In New York, he twice faced eviction suits. And significant questions remain about his sources of income and wealth, potential misstatements on personal financial disclosures he filed as part of his run for Congress, his family ancestry, and other topics — questions so breathtaking in scope they have now reportedly attracted the attention of federal and state prosecutors.

As professional investigators, we couldn’t help but note that Santos’s life story was littered with red flags. And apparently some of his mendaciousness had been discovered before the election, or at least hinted at. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reported in a background research memorandum that the IRS had no record of his pet rescue charity. They asked “what is Santos hiding” about his “shady finances”? His vanquished Democratic opponent stated he “always knew Santos was running a scam” but his attempts to get traction with the press were “drowned out in a governor’s race, where crime was the focus.”

So why wasn’t the full story told?

Post-mortems examining why such “opposition research” efforts fell short and why journalists failed to uncover the story have cited many factors — a compressed campaign schedule, complacency in a “safe” Democratic district, competing priorities for investigative resources, poor messaging choices by the Democratic party, even outright incompetence.

The failure to scrutinize Santos’ story before the election was a failure of investigation — a failure to complete the precise, painstaking work that goes into verifying people are who they say they are and not figments of their hyper-active imagination.

At a deeper level, this was also a failure of imagination, not with Santos but with those charged with vetting him — a failure to imagine the red flags identified in a cursory review of Santos’s history were only the beginning, a failure to imagine that a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives would invent his whole history. That was the story no one could see. Had someone seen it, had someone imagined it, the outcome may well have been different.

Santos’s story may be extreme, but it is not unique. Power brokersCEOs, and wealthy heiresses have all had their stories unravel. And that holds a lesson for us all. We choose to hire people, work with people, and invest with people, based on the stories they tell and the capabilities and intentions those stories imply.

While we want those stories to be true, wanting it doesn’t make it so.

Chris Ribeiro is a managing director at global investigations firm Nardello & Co. based in New York; he leads complex investigations for government agencies, law firms, multinational corporations, and nonprofit organizations. He was formerly an intelligence analyst and briefer with the CIA and the New York City Police Department.

Matt Bricken is a director in Nardello & Co.’s Washington, D.C., office. Prior to joining Nardello & Co., he founded and ran an opposition research consultancy that served candidates and political campaigns across 45 states and five continents.

Tags Background checks false statements George Santos George Santos investigations Opposition research Vetting

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