February 6, 2023

Rep. George Santos (R-NY) got funding from the cousin of a Russian oligarch, worked for a firm whose founder said he sought capital investments in Belarus and reportedly connected said firm with said cousin.

What’s not to like?

Over the month since The New York Times flagged George Santos as a serial fabulist, TPM has taken an intensive look at the swirling mess around Santos, his lies, his past business activities and his campaign filings. Other publications have too. 

Questions continue to persist over Santos’ sudden increase in wealth, which saw him go from living with roommates and being unable to make rent to having hundreds of thousands of dollars to pour into his own campaign in 2022. 

As we’ve sought answers, we’ve repeatedly stumbled across bizarre and unexplained connections to the former Soviet Union in Santos’ past, many relating to his involvement with an investment firm called Harbor City Capital, which the SEC later alleged was a “classic Ponzi scheme.” 

The potential ties to Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan and at least one oligarch from the region lack any real coherence. Instead, they fuel further questions about how Santos made his money, and with whom he went into business before he became a political entrepreneur. 

“The Office of Congressman George Santos R-NY03 does not comment on campaign or personal matters,” a spokesperson said by email.

Here’s a few episodes about which we have questions. 

Harbor City Fundraising

Harbor City Capital founder JP Maroney touted a trip to both Russia and Belarus in social media posts from 2015, announcing that he would travel to St. Petersburg and Minsk, among other locales, for a “European Capital raising tour.” Per court documents, Harbor City was a young company, founded only the previous year.

“I’ll be in Europe for the first two weeks in November raising capital. We’ve already got meetings set up with over 50 investors over there,” Maroney said in one 2015 video posted on Facebook.

It’s not clear whether Maroney succeeded in raising any money for Harbor City on the trip, which, he said, also included stops in Paris, Brussels, Vienna and Berlin. 

Harbor City has played an outsized role in questions about Santos’ claims of wealth, and about the myths that he constructed around his supposed past as a master of high finance. Santos started working for the firm in 2020, the same year he first ran for Congress, and bragged about being the “head guy” at Harbor City “for New York City.” The SEC described Harbor City as a “classic Ponzi scheme” in an April 2021 complaint against the firm and Maroney.

In a November 2015 email exchange included in the SEC’s lawsuit and first reported by the Daily Beast, Maroney allegedly dodged questions from a jilted investor by saying that he was traveling in Belarus, a former Soviet republic that’s come to exist as an appendage to the Russian state.

Maroney didn’t return questions from TPM about what the Eastern European fundraising tour yielded, or why he was seeking investments from outside the United States. Maroney’s wife posted pictures on Facebook of her and JP on a trip that same year, including photos in Minsk, Vienna, Paris and Berlin.

In an interview with TPM, Scott Rauland, acting U.S. ambassador to Belarus from 2014 to 2016, expressed bewilderment about why Harbor City would be fundraising in Belarus. During Maroney’s 2015 trip, Belarus was undergoing a thaw in its relations with the West, Rauland said, before returning to the Russian fold after 2020. 

“He’s dependent entirely on Russia for his survival,” Rauland said of Belarus’ leader. “So that sets the stage for screwy financial things to happen.” 

It’s not clear what Maroney’s trip ultimately yielded for Harbor City, if anything.

“It’s not a bad place to go fishing if you’re looking to get oligarch money,” Rauland added. 

Enter Mr. Intrater

The reports of Harbor City’s purported fundraising attempt in the former Soviet Union come as many ask: How did Santos go from being unable to make rent payments to having hundreds of thousands of dollars to pour into his 2022 campaign? How was Santos able to form relationships with the wealthy donors who backed his campaign?

One such wealthy donor was Andrew Intrater, the American financier cousin of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. Intrater and his wife contributed a combined $23,600 to Santos’ 2020 and 2022 congressional campaigns, and donated an additional $31,100 to GADS PAC — Santos’ leadership committee — and Devolder Santos Nassau Victory. Intrater also contributed $80,000 to Rise NY PAC, a New York-registered committee operated by Santos’ sister.

It’s not clear how Intrater and Santos first met. A GOP operative who worked on Santos’ campaign told TPM that the two had a “preexisting relationship,” but its origins remain unclear.

However, Intrater himself appears to have put money into Harbor City, and, in 2020, Santos claimed to Harbor City colleagues that Intrater’s investment firm was a “client” of his, the Washington Post reported Monday.

According to a declaration attached to the SEC’s complaint, another company linked to Intrater deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars in Harbor City. The declaration includes this helpful chart:

The biggest single deposit listed is $625,00 from FEA Innovations,a company registered to Intrater, the Post first reported. Public corporate filings show that FEA Innovations, a Mississippi-registered firm, has Intrater as its sole officer.

It’s not clear where the $625,000 deposit from the Intrater firm to Harbor City went.

Other investors listed as having provided deposits have filed lawsuits or other grievances against Harbor City; Intrater did not return a request for comment regarding whether he planned on seeking restitution. Mother Jones reported on Wednesday that an unidentified person close to Intrater claimed that Santos swindled the fund manager out of the deposit, promising a “return on his investment.”

Per the SEC, Harbor City leadership spent investor funds on luxury expenses, fancy cars for the company’s leadership and other benefits.

Ties to Russian Oligarch

Intrater’s cousin Vekselberg has been a source of fascination and speculation since the Trump-Russia scandal, largely because of the relationship between Intrater and Trump attorney Michael Cohen. Intrater’s firm, Columbus Nova, paid Cohen more than $500,000, and Intrater and Vekselberg also reportedly met with Cohen at Trump’s 2017 inauguration.

A person who did months of due diligence on Columbus Nova in the mid-2000s related to an investment the firm was pursuing told TPM that, at least back then, Vekselberg was not just a primary investor in the fund: he was its sole investor.

“The way it was presented to me was that Vekselberg was a control freak — he was portrayed as Dr. Evil without the being evil part,” the person said. “He controlled everything, all of his money. I can’t see all of a sudden Columbus Nova saying ‘let’s get a lot of outside investors’ because it wouldn’t be of interest to him.”

It’s not clear how the makeup of funds at Columbus Nova may have changed over the years. Columbus Nova told the Washington Post in 2018 that Renova Group, Vekselberg’s firm, was its largest client. Renova Group was sanctioned by the U.S. government that year, part of an effort to punish those close to Putin for meddling in the 2016 election. 

In 2017, before the Trump-Russia scandal, Renova described Columbus Nova as one of its companies, though the firm now denies that. Columbus Nova did not respond to TPM’s questions about how much of its fund comes from Vekselberg. Renova did not return TPM’s request for comment. 

The person said that in the mid-2000s they did four months of investigating to ensure that Columbus Nova was on the up and up. At the time, the person said, the firm was synonymous with Vekselberg. The person found no evidence of suspicious activity, but plenty of near-cinematic displays of the oligarch’s wealth. 

The person described Veskselberg’s well-known trove of Fabergé eggs, one of which this person said he would give Vladimir Putin every year for his birthday, gold mines, oil money, an office in midtown Manhattan like something out of a “James Bond set” replete with slick glass and metal, modelesque assistants and Don Perignon-slugging financiers. 

The person remembered thinking, “Well okay, he’s got a lot of glue,” adding that Vekselberg’s people were “stressing his connection to Putin.”

Vekselberg, who was born in what’s now Western Ukraine but who moved to Moscow for university and stayed there, has faced repeated allegations of work for the Russian government over the years, including a 2010 claim from the FBI that a group he sponsored was attempting to steal U.S. technology for use in Russia. The Treasury Department sanctioned Vekselberg in April 2018, and U.S. prosecutors seized a yacht belonging to him in April 2022.

Lots of Smoke

A close read of filings related to the SEC’s Harbor City case and interviews with former Santos campaign staffers turn up other mystifying episodes. 

The SEC, for example, also listed in its declaration supporting civil charges against Harbor City an entry stating that the company used $426,000 of the money deposited for “payments to one individual wired to the National Bank for Foreign Economic Activity of the Republic of Uzbekistan.”

Among all of these fresh questions, the animating mystery remains unsolved: where did Santos get the money to run for Congress?

One former Santos campaign staffer replied cryptically when posed this question.

“I just know that there are people, international people, who have come through at some events,” the person told TPM. “There have been some connections made.”

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