U.S. Rep. George Santos was charged with criminal theft in Pennsylvania in 2017 in connection with bad checks apparently used to buy puppies from dog breeders, according to a lawyer who said she helped the Republican with the case.
The case was ultimately dismissed after Santos said the nine checks, totaling more than $15,000, were from a checkbook that had been stolen from him, according to information provided to The Associated Press on Thursday by the attorney, Tiffany Bogosian.
The theft case, first reported by Politico, adds to the controversy surrounding the first-term Long Island congressman, who faces multiple investigations and has acknowledged lying about elements of his life story.
A spokesperson for the York County district attorney's office in Pennsylvania, where the charges were filed, said the office cannot comment on expunged cases. Pennsylvania state police officials did not return messages seeking comment.
A congressional aide to Santos referred questions to his attorney, Joseph Murray, who didn't immediately respond to a message seeking comment. Santos has previously denied any illegal doings.
The charges date to a time when Santos claimed to be leading a group, Friends of Pets United, that benefited sick, abandoned or neglected animals.
Some people familiar with the group have questioned what became of the money it raised. FBI agents recently visited a New Jersey man who complained that Santos had raised $3,000 for his terminally ill dog, but never delivered the cash or helped the sick animal.
It’s not the first time Santos has been linked to a criminal investigation involving checks. Court records in Brazil, first reported by The New York Times, show Santos was the subject of a criminal charge there for using two stolen checks in 2008, when he would have been 19, to buy about $1,350 worth of items at a clothing shop in the city of Niteroi.
The Times quoted local prosecutors as saying the case was dormant because Santos had never appeared in court. Santos has denied being sought by authorities in South America.
Bogosian said she began helping Santos with the Pennsylvania theft case in 2020, after he told her he had been served with an extradition warrant. She gave the AP email correspondence she had with a Pennsylvania state trooper in February 2020.
In the email to the trooper, she wrote that Santos told her one of four checkbooks he received from his bank disappeared in 2017 and he immediately called the bank, had the checks canceled and put stop pay orders on all the checks. He later closed the account.
In the email, Bogosian said Santos was not aware of the checks written to the dog breeders until after he was charged. Defending her friend, she also wrote that the signatures on the checks differed from each other and from Santos' own signature.
“A review of the below and attached will make clear my client is not only the victim of fraud but so are the additional payees listed below and whom received the attached checks,” Bogosian wrote in the email.
Santos, she wrote, suspected that his roommate at the end of 2017, “a person only known as ‘Sydney Lima,'" had access to the checks and was perhaps responsible.
The charges were later expunged, but it is not clear exactly why.
The memo lines on some of the bad checks written to the dog breeders said they had been used to buy “puppies.”
Shortly after the checks were written, Friends of Pets United held a puppy adoption event at a pet store in New York City, at which people paid hundreds of dollars for the animals.
The New York Times reported Monday that after that adoption event, in November 2017, Santos asked the pet store owner to write a check from the proceeds to Anthony Devolder, the name Santos was going by at the time.
The owner rejected the request and instead made the check payable to Friends of Pets United. The owner, Daniel Avissato, told the Times he later discovered in his bank records that someone had blotted out Friends of Pets United on the check's recipient line and replaced it with Anthony Devolder.
Santos has refused to answer questions about Friends of Pets United, but said in a tweet responding to some of the fundraising allegations that “my work in animal advocacy was the labor of love & hard work.”
He said he had rescued many dogs over the years.