A month after the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit in 2021 accusing a Florida-based company of operating a Ponzi scheme, one of the firm’s account managers assured an anxious client that his money was safe.
The client, a wealthy investor named Andrew Intrater, had been lured by annual returns of 16 percent and had invested $625,000 in a fund offered by the company, Harbor City Capital — in part because he trusted and admired the account manager, an aspiring politician named George Santos.
Admiration aside, Mr. Intrater wanted to know about his investment and a promised letter of credit that secured it. Mr. Santos said that it was already on the way.
“All issued and sent over,” Mr. Santos assured him in a text message sent in May 2021.
The letter of credit did not exist, the S.E.C. would later tell a court. The $100 million that Mr. Santos told Mr. Intrater that he had personally raised for Harbor City did not exist either, the commission said. Nor, seemingly, did the close to $4 million that Mr. Santos claimed he and his family had invested in Harbor City.
Mr. Santos’s representations form the basis of a sworn declaration that Mr. Intrater gave the S.E.C. in May 2022, as part of its Harbor City investigation. Mr. Intrater’s interactions with the S.E.C. are the first indication the commission might be interested in Mr. Santos.
Mr. Intrater told the S.E.C. that the representations influenced his decision to invest in Mr. Santos’s business and political endeavors — an allegation that could leave Mr. Santos vulnerable to criminal charges.
“I admired him and fundamentally I thought he’s a hard-working guy — he’s young and he has the ability to win,” Mr. Intrater said in a recent interview.
In late December, after Mr. Santos’s years of lies were exposed, Mr. Intrater reconsidered his appraisal. He shared with The New York Times text messages that he exchanged with Mr. Santos, as well as documents and the declaration that he had given to the S.E.C. — all outlining the ways in which he said Mr. Santos had misled him.
“I don’t want Republicans having a bum representing Republicans, and I don’t want to have a guy that committed crimes walking free,” he said.
The S.E.C. has not indicated publicly that it is looking into Mr. Santos and declined to answer questions about potential inquiries into the congressman or communications between Mr. Intrater and the agency. But the S.E.C. reached out to Mr. Intrater in March 2022 to seek information on Mr. Santos’s dealings on behalf of Harbor City, according to Mr. Intrater and his lawyer.
Although Mr. Santos claimed to have raised $100 million for Harbor City, S.E.C. documents say the firm had only raised a total of $17 million. And while Mr. Santos said that he and his family had invested millions of dollars because of Harbor City, financial disclosures filed during his 2020 run for Congress show that he earned just $55,000 that year, and had no assets.
More on George Santos
- Behind The Times’s Investigation: The Times journalists Michael Gold and Grace Ashford discuss how Representative George Santos was elected to Congress and how they discovered that he was a fraud.
- Tilting to the Hard Right: Mr. Santos’s actions in and out of the House chamber so far this year suggest that his stance in Congress will be further to the right than the one he adopted on the campaign trail.
- Clothes Make the Con Man: To look the part he conceived for himself, Mr. Santos went deep into the costume department of the popular culture hive mind and built his cover story garment by garment.
- Holes in the Gate-Keeping System: Interviews and documents obtained by The Times show that some Republicans had indications far earlier than the public did that Mr. Santos was spinning an elaborate web of deceits.
If Mr. Santos had lured investors through the use of false statements, he could face charges of securities fraud, legal experts said.
It is not clear how the S.E.C. is handling Mr. Intrater’s sworn declaration; it does not appear to have been filed in court. The lawsuit was put on hold in October 2022 at the request of Harbor City’s chief executive, J.P. Maroney, because of a related criminal investigation into him, court documents show. Mr. Maroney has denied wrongdoing.
Some of Mr. Santos’s interactions with Mr. Intrater have been outlined in news accounts, including in Mother Jones, The Daily Beast and The Washington Post.
But documents, as well as interviews and text messages reviewed by The Times, offer new evidence of the lengths Mr. Santos went to in an effort to obscure the problems at Harbor City, and how the relationship soured between the politician and one of his biggest supporters.
Mr. Intrater is a private equity investor perhaps best known for his financial ties to Viktor Vekselberg, his cousin. Mr. Vekselberg is a Russian oligarch whose U.S. assets were frozen in 2018 by the Treasury Department because of his ties to the Kremlin.
Under a license from the Treasury Department, Mr. Intrater says, he has continued to manage Vekselberg-connected assets but is in the process of winding them down. He says that he has not distributed or received funds or had business dealings with Mr. Vekselberg or related companies since the sanctions.
Mr. Intrater is also known for his relationship with Michael D. Cohen, Donald J. Trump’s onetime personal lawyer; Mr. Intrater’s firm, Columbus Nova, signed Mr. Cohen to a $1 million consulting contract when the businessman was looking for new investment opportunities in 2018.
Mr. Santos met Mr. Intrater a few years later; Mr. Intrater recalled that Mr. Santos called him seeking his financial support in the 2020 congressional race. After Mr. Santos lost, the two remained friendly, building a relationship over text messages and lunches at Osteria Delbianco, an Italian restaurant in Midtown. They bonded over a shared “old school” worldview and having families that fled the Holocaust, Mr. Intrater said. (Mr. Santos’s family did not actually flee the Holocaust, records show.)
Mr. Santos, as The Daily Beast reported, joined Harbor City in 2020, the same year he first ran for the House, and helped establish the firm’s presence in New York as its regional director. Mr. Santos had met Mr. Maroney, Harbor City’s chief executive, when Mr. Santos was helping to organize conferences for LinkBridge Investors, Mr. Maroney said, and the two stayed in touch.
Mr. Maroney liked Mr. Santos, whom he described as “a consummate networker.” He hired him to bring in investments from the ultrawealthy.
According to court documents filed by the S.E.C., Harbor City told investors that it had discovered a way to make guaranteed money by investing in digital marketing and advertising.
But Harbor City was not doing any such investing, and only a small part of the $17 million it raised was used for legitimate business expenses, the government claims. The company, according to civil charges filed by the S.E.C., was instead engaged in a Ponzi scheme, using investments from new clients to make payments to older investors, while Mr. Maroney siphoned money from business accounts to buy a Mercedes and a waterfront house and pay down more than $1 million in credit card bills.
Mr. Intrater was a lucrative client. He decided to invest the $625,000 in a Harbor City fund, using a holding company, F.E.A. Innovations. He and Mr. Maroney signed a subscription agreement, which was reviewed by The Times, on Jan. 15, 2021.
Mr. Intrater became one of Mr. Santos’s more generous patrons. In addition to his investments in Harbor City funds, first reported by The Washington Post, he donated more than $200,000 to Mr. Santos’s election campaign, associated political committees and a New York PAC that he would later learn was controlled by Mr. Santos’s sister. He liked the political stances of Mr. Santos, a Republican, and his rags-to-riches story, he said.
In retrospect, he should have recognized warning signs, he said.
Though Mr. Intrater and his lawyers repeatedly requested the letter of credit, it never materialized. And while he received the first interest payment as scheduled in March 2021, the April payment was mysteriously clawed back. He did not receive any future payments from the company, he said.
With the April payment and the bank letter still missing, Mr. Intrater followed up with Mr. Santos on May 28, 2021. Mr. Intrater said he was unaware at the time that the S.E.C. had by then made public its fraud complaint against Mr. Maroney and Harbor City.
But all was well, Mr. Santos assured Mr. Intrater, casually mentioning that he had been let go a few weeks earlier. Mr. Santos, who was running for Congress a second time, told Mr. Intrater that his political activities were deemed to be a conflict for Harbor City and he was leaving to focus on his real estate and small projects. (Mr. Santos has since admitted that he does not own any property.)
Mr. Maroney said in an interview that he had no problems with Mr. Santos’s political career and that he supported his ambitions, even agreeing to hold a fund-raiser for Mr. Trump’s re-election bid at his home.
In fact, Mr. Maroney and another former Harbor City employee said Mr. Santos had been with the firm until the end. Mr. Maroney recalled in an interview last month that Mr. Santos “was definitely one of the ones that got the notice that everything we had had been frozen.”
Yet months after Harbor City’s accounts were frozen in April, Mr. Santos was still telling Mr. Intrater that things were fine, maintaining that the $100 million fund he had mentioned was separate from the one described in the S.E.C. case, according to text messages he sent Mr. Intrater.
“Hey Andy, I put in calls to everyone I know still working at HC,” he wrote Mr. Intrater. “Should hear back today I hope.”
A few days later, Mr. Santos was fretting about his own financial exposure, which he had told Mr. Intrater was huge. “I’m having a nervous breakdown,” he texted.
As late as January 2022 he swore to Mr. Intrater that his family had invested “almost 4M,” and said that he had employed a lawyer, Joe Murray, to help him try to claw back any remaining funds.
The court-appointed lawyer overseeing Harbor City’s assets, Katherine Donlon, would not formally say whether Mr. Santos and his family had invested in Harbor City. But she said that she did not recognize their names as investors, in response to a request emailed by The Times.
Mr. Murray declined to answer questions from The Times about Mr. Santos’s representations to Mr. Intrater and on behalf of Harbor City, saying only, “It would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation.” Mr. Santos, who was not named in the S.E.C. suit, has publicly said he had no knowledge of wrongdoing at Harbor City, an assertion that Mr. Maroney backed up.
Mr. Intrater said that at the time, he felt for the younger man, who he believed was also a victim.
“Take long walks to clear your head in order to deal with the stress,” he coached Mr. Santos via text, urging him to avoid stress eating and alcohol.
The two stayed in touch, even as Mr. Intrater came to write off his investment. When Mr. Santos appealed to him again for political donations in his second run for Congress, Mr. Intrater came through, donating tens of thousands of dollars to Mr. Santos’s associated PACs.
And he remained receptive to business opportunities presented by Mr. Santos, who helped to set up at least two other potential deals. Neither came together.
Neither Mr. Intrater nor his lawyer have heard much from the S.E.C. since filing the declaration, they said, with the commission only replying in November 2022 to say that the civil case had been stayed.
By then, Mr. Santos had been elected to represent New York’s Third Congressional District. A few days later, Mr. Intrater had lunch with the congressman-elect and offered his congratulations.
Things changed in December after Mr. Santos’s deception became public. In the weeks since, Mr. Intrater said he has reached out to the Department of Justice offering information on Mr. Santos. The agency declined to comment.
The last time the men spoke, Mr. Intrater says, was after he saw Mr. Santos being grilled on Fox News, about a week after The Times ran its initial investigation.
“I said, ‘Dude, I saw your interview,’” Mr. Intrater said. “‘You look like you’re absolutely lying about everything.’”
Once again, Mr. Santos sought to reassure him. But Mr. Intrater was no longer interested in explanations.
He told Mr. Santos that he was convinced he was a liar and then cursed at him, he said. “I hung up the phone,” he added. “That was it.”
Ben Protess William K. Rashbaum and Jay Root contributed reporting, and Susan C. Beachy contributed research.