Another Santos Scandal? He Diverted Voter Registration Money to a GOP-Allied Gay Rights Site.

The funds financed a project associated with Richard Grenell, a top Trump aide who raised cash for Santos.

Mother Jones; Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP

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During Rep. George Santos’ second run for a congressional seat on Long Island—he lost his first—he helped raise money for and direct a political action committee called Rise NY that was set up in 2020 under New York State law. Its declared mission was to focus on voter registration, education, and turnout. The PAC collected over $430,000 in donations for its operations. Yet Santos, the disgraced Republican fabulist, used a large chunk of those funds—$55,800—for a purpose other than voter registration and engagement and sent this money to a Washington, DC, nonprofit to fund a new conservative gay rights site associated with Richard Grenell, a prominent gay Republican who served in the Trump administration and who endorsed Santos and helped him gather campaign money. 

Rise NY was officially headed by Santos’ sister, Tiffany, who was listed as its president and on its payroll. Nancy Marks served as the PAC’s treasurer, the same role she held on Santos’ House campaigns. Rise NY engaged in actions that the New York Times characterized as “unusual, if not a violation” of law, which included paying workers for Santos’ House campaign. As Newsday reported in an exposé of Rise NY, it made two payments totaling $5,200 to the landlord of the building where Santos lived in Whitestone, Queens. The PAC also sent $35,000 to Marks and two of her companies, reporting on its campaign filings that these payments were for “reimbursement” and “professional services.” When the PAC donated $62,500 each to the Nassau County Republican Committee and the Town of Hempstead Republican Committee, Santos personally handed the checks to Joseph Cairo, the Nassau County GOP chair—an indication Santos had a role with the PAC, though he had no official position with the group. Rise NY is one of the many elements of the bizarre Santos saga that has raised significant questions about his personal ethics and his handling of big amounts of money. 

One of the top recipients of money from Rise NY was the Liberty Education Forum, a small nonprofit in Washington that is affiliated with the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization of gay Republicans. The donations Rise NY sent the group had nothing to do with voter registration efforts. According to Charles Moran, a spokesperson for the forum, Rise NY made three payments of $18,600 to support a new project the group started called Outspoken Middle East, an international LGBTQ human rights program. Rise NY also paid the group $1,800 for three tickets to its 2021 annual gala.

Moran, an officer of both Log Cabin Republicans and the Liberty Education Forum, says that in the summer of 2021 he approached Santos, who was well known within gay Republican circles, and asked if Santos could help fund a program that would provide news coverage of the treatment of gay and lesbian people in the Middle East. “We had solicited support from George as any nonprofit would from people of influence,” Moran notes. He adds, “I don’t know what formally was George’s technical designation with Rise NY PAC. I do know he was involved in some way, shape, or form.”

Moran did not talk to anyone else at Rise NY PAC about the possible contribution. When the first donation from Rise NY came in, Moran recalls, he did not question why a voter registration outfit in New York state would send tens of thousands of dollars to a media project focused on gay rights overseas: “I did not look at the purpose of the mission of Rise NY…I looked at it legally. It is legal for a state PAC to make a donation to a nonprofit. So I took it.”

Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer, says that New York, like most states, “allows PACs to spend their funds for any lawful purpose, short of converting the funds to personal use.” 

Grenell, who was Trump’s ambassador to Germany and then served as his acting director of national intelligence, was one of the initiators of Outspoken Middle East. He was also a key endorser of Santos during Santos’ successful congressional race. 

Rise NY made its first $18,600 donation to this initiative, according to its campaign filings, on September 13, 2021. This was two months before Grenell, in a guest column for Newsweek, announced the launch of Outspoken Middle East. The project, Grenell and its editor Chadwick Moore noted in this piece, would provide “a news and information platform with translations in Farsi and Arabic” and post articles from “a team of LGBTQ+ citizen journalists in Tehran, Kabul, Beirut and around the region and world to tell human stories about the realities of being gay in parts of the world that liberals and corporations have left behind.” (In the Newsweek article, Grenell and Moore took credit for launching Outspoken Middle East and assembling its contributors, but Moran says “it is not accurate at all to call [Grenell] a creator of Outspoken.” Outspoken Middle East has noted that Grenell is an adviser to the project.)

On October 4, 2021, Grenell was the featured guest at a fundraiser for Santos’ congressional campaign. In the ensuing six months, Rise NY made two more $18,600 donations to the Grenell-backed enterprise. In July 2022, Grenell officially endorsed Santos’ congressional bid. 

The Rise NY donations to the Liberty Education Forum were significant money. In 2020, the last year for which tax returns for this nonprofit are available, the group raised only $106,700. According to Moran, other donors helped fund Outspoken Middle East.

Most of the money that Rise NY pocketed came from two Republican funders. One was Andrew Intrater, a wealthy New York fund manager and cousin to sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. At Santos’ behest, Intrater also invested hundreds of thousands of dollars with a firm where Santos worked that was accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of running a Ponzi scheme. Intrater donated $175,000 to Rise NY in several installments across 2021 and 2022. Robert Mangi, the president of a Long Island-based insurance company, was the other main backer of Rise NY, pumping in $150,000. 

In a statement provided to Mother Jones, Intrater noted he was surprised to learn that 40 percent of Rise NY’s funding had come from him and that Santos sent a significant portion of the PAC’s funds to a gay rights program in Washington, DC.  “While I support gay rights,” Intrater said, “that’s not the purpose for Rise NY that was represented to me. I was told several times that Rise NY funds were going to efforts to register Republican voters in traditionally Democrat voting districts. George introduced me to Rise NY but I didn’t discuss its activities with him after he made the introduction. Until the reports came out indicating that George’s sister was involved with Rise, I had no idea George or his people had anything to do with it other than having made the introduction to benefit the NY Republican party.”

In Intrater’s telling, Santos hit him up for money for a voter registration project in New York, without revealing his close connection to the endeavor, and then used a large amount of the PAC’s funds for an entirely different purpose. Intrater has told the New York Times that he “has reached out to the Department of Justice offering information on Mr. Santos and has also provided information about Santos to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Mangi did not respond to a request for comment. He told Newsday that Santos was a “fraud,” adding that “donors on all sides of the political aisle will now respond to requests for campaign donations with the question, ‘What do I really know about this person, issue, or PAC?'”

Asked about Santos using Rise NY funds to underwrite this gay rights project, Joseph Murray, an attorney for Santos, said, “It would be inappropriate to comment on this matter due to the ongoing investigations.” Santos is reportedly being investigated by local, state, and federal authorities. 

Santos’ congressional office did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Tiffany Santos or Nancy Marks. 

Queried about the Santos donation to Outspoken Middle East, Grenell emailed Mother Jones a statement praising the work of this project and blasting “the gay left” for failing “the gay community with their anti-American campaigns in West Hollywood and Chelsea.” He acknowledged that Santos is a liar. But Grenell did not reply to a list of questions regarding his relationship to Santos.

When Santos won the election in November, Grenell celebrated, tweeting, “Historic. @Santos4Congress becomes the first openly gay Republican to win a congressional seat (all others came out after elected). It took too long to reach this moment. But big congratulations to George.” This onetime acting head of US intelligence has not tweeted about Santos since. 

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