US Representative George Santos has pleaded not guilty to charges alleging a financial fraud at the heart of a political campaign built on dubious boasts about his personal wealth and business success.
Mr Santos – the New York Republican whose biography began to unravel after his election last autumn – is accused of duping donors, stealing campaign funds, lying to Congress and cheating to collect unemployment benefits he did not deserve.
The 34-year-old was released from custody on a 500,000 dollars (£396,000) bond following his arraignment at a Long Island federal courthouse, about five hours after he surrendered to authorities.
His lawyer, Joseph Murray, was more circumspect, saying: “Any time the federal government comes after you it’s a serious case. We have to take this serious.”
Mr Murray said it was too early to discuss whether Mr Santos would consider a plea deal.
Mr Santos previously defied calls to resign as details of his fictitious resume came to light.
In the past, members of Congress in both parties have remained in office while facing charges.
He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Mr Santos said little during his arraignment, which lasted about 15 minutes. His lawyer said he plans to continue his recently announced reelection campaign, defying calls to resign. He asked the judge for permission for mr Santos to travel freely, though he did surrender his passport.
Mr Santos’s lawyer, Joseph Murray, said the congressman was in good spirits, telling reporters: “We finally get to address all of these allegations.”
Among the allegations, prosecutors say Mr Santos induced supporters to donate to a company under the false pretense that the money would be used to support his campaign. Instead, they say, he used the money for personal expenses, including designer clothes and his credit card and car payments.
The indictment “seeks to hold Santos accountable for various alleged fraudulent schemes and brazen misrepresentations,” US Attorney Breon Peace said.
“Taken together, the allegations in the indictment charge Santos with relying on repeated dishonesty and deception to ascend to the halls of Congress and enrich himself.”
Santos has defied calls to resign — some from fellow Republicans — as details of his fictitious resume came to light, though he did decline his committee assignments.
Mr Santos was elected to Congress last autumn after a campaign built partly on falsehoods. He told people he was a wealthy Wall Street dealmaker with a substantial real estate portfolio who had been a star volleyball player in college, among other things.
In reality, Mr Santos did not work at the big financial firms he claimed had employed him, did not go to college and struggled financially before his run for public office.
He claimed he fuelled his run largely with self-made riches, earned from brokering deals on expensive toys for wealthy clients, but the indictment alleges those boasts were also exaggerated.
In regulatory filings, Santos claimed he loaned his campaign and related political action committees more than 750,000 US dollars (£595,000), but it was unclear how he would have come into that kind of wealth so quickly after years in which he struggled to pay his rent and faced multiple eviction proceedings.
Many of Mr Santos’ fellow New York Republicans called on him to resign after his fabricated life story was revealed. Some renewed those calls after news of his indictment.
“Sooner or later, whether he chooses to or not, both the truth and justice will be delivered to him,” said US Representative Marc Molinaro, a Republican representing parts of upstate New York.
Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who confronted Mr Santos at President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address in February, said Mr Santos should have resigned a long time ago.
“I think we’re seeing that the wheels of justice grind slow, but they grind fine,” Mr Romney said.
House Republican leaders Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise were more circumspect, saying Mr Santos deserved a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
“He should be thrown out of Congress and put in prison,” said Jeff Herzberg, a Long Island resident who spent hours waiting to see Mr Santos’s arraignment. “I hope that day comes soon.”