FBI investigates George Santos in alleged shunned dog funding scheme

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Money came from raffles and basket sales, and pets found new homes. The Staten Island adoption event was a success. Until the leader of the charity made a strange request: he insisted that the store owner give him the money in a check made out to him, Anthony Devolder.

The owner refused and wrote the check to the charity Friends of Pets United. Days later, he realized that the name of the institution had been erased. “When it was cashed, it was crossed out and had ‘Anthony Devolder’ written on the check,” says the owner, Daniel Avissato.

Anthony Devolder is now known as Republican Representative George Santos of New York, whose election to the US Congress in November was accompanied by revelations of lies in his past and irregularities in his personal and campaign finances.

Prosecutors are investigating whether Santos’ lies merit criminal charges. And FBI agents, the American federal police, are now investigating some of his work with Friends of Pets United, revealed the Politico website.

Santos said he founded and ran the charity from 2013 to 2018. At the time, his campaign biography claimed, the organization had rescued more than 2,500 animals. He recently characterized his involvement as a “mission of love and hard work”.

Santos did not confirm the claims. There are few records to corroborate them, and Friends of Pets United’s operations appear to have focused on a now-defunct Facebook group. Only traces of the organization remain in public posts and GoFundMe campaigns, and Santos’ campaign biography no longer mentions it.

Santos’ attorney, Joe Murray, did not respond to questions about Friends of Pets United. But screenshots from the Facebook group and interviews with former volunteers and friends of Santos help get a fuller picture of the charity’s operations.

They recalled scattered initiatives: some pets were rescued, and money and supplies were donated to animal groups. But they also suggest that Santos’ penchant for lies and exaggeration extended to Friends of Pets United.

Several say that Santos claimed he operated a registered non-profit organization, but no records exist to confirm this. They say the group has rescued far fewer pets than the more than 2,500 Santos claims to have saved.

The group was not registered as a rescue organization in the state of New York, and there was no record that it was authorized to remove dogs from New York City shelters. And several people question Santos’ handling of his group’s funds, saying they never received the thousands of dollars he raised in his name, often through GoFundMe.

Regina Spadavecchia, who runs the Adore-a-Bullie Paws and Claws animal shelter in the Bronx, says Santos bragged about his ability to raise money, saying he was a financial manager with connections. In fact, he had worked for a hotel company based in Turkey, moving on to work at a small company that organized conferences for investors and fund managers.

Spadavecchia believed her claims and, with at least a dozen dogs in her care, was eager for help. In March 2017, Santos posted that she was raising money for Adore-a-Bullie, through a $5 raffle for a dinner cruise and Broadway tickets.

But he never fully followed through on his promises, says Spadavecchia, sending her about $400 instead of the thousands of dollars he had suggested. She decided to cut ties. “If you’re raising money on my behalf and you claim you can make a few thousand and you send me $400, something is wrong. Either you’re bragging about things you can’t do or you’re taking the money. I don’t know.”

Needy dogs and cats

In October 2015, Santos used one of the institution’s first posts on Facebook to boast that the group had participated in 20 adoptions in its two months of operation — his biography indicated that the group started working in 2013.

Screenshots of the Facebook group provided to The New York Times show that Santos frequently reposted photos of other rescues or other Facebook pages, imploring group members to help save dogs and cats in need.

Monica Cunha, who first connected with Santos through a page for fans of Brazilian pets, recalled that he would take dogs whose owners could no longer care for them and try to find them new homes. But she said he rarely published details of successful adoptions.

Posts also show that Santos raised funds through GoFundMe pages, direct requests for a PayPal account, and sweepstakes. In these requests, he always referred to the charity as a tax-exempt organization.

However, federal and state authorities have found no record of a charity registered as Friends of Pets United. The New York Department of Agriculture and Markets said it had no information that the organization was registered as a shelter, as would be required starting in September 2017.

Animal Care Centers of NYC, a company contracted by the city for animal-related services, said it had no record of working with Friends of Pets United or any indication that the group was authorized to remove dogs from its shelters.

Santos did not explain his descriptions of the charity’s status. He also had connections with an animal shelter in South Carolina, the Berkeley Animal Center. Jenna-Ley Jamison, a spokeswoman for the charity, says the shelter’s records show that it only sent two dogs to Friends of Pets United in December 2017.

Judi Eskenazi, who once helped run an animal shelter in New Jersey, claims Santos asked her in 2018 to help him with six dogs he had taken from a shelter in South Carolina. A friend of hers at another shelter took the animals. At the time, Santos said he was closing his shelter. Months later, he came back with a similar story: he was about to close and needed to place his last remaining animals. He would repeat the speech throughout the year.

By December, Eskenazi was tired of the requests and started talking about it with a friend who runs an animal shelter and had similar experiences. This friend decided to look into Friends of Pets United and the man behind it, Anthony Devolder.

Days later, he sent a message to Eskenazi on Facebook. “Wait, that’s really weird. I’m pretty sure his name is actually George.”

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