A federal judge has granted a request by nearly a dozen news organizations to unseal the names of three individuals who secured a $500,000 bond to keep Rep. George Santos out of pretrial detention — names the fabulist congressman has said he’d rather go to jail than disclose.
In a decision still under seal, Magistrate Judge Anne Shields granted the requests by the news organizations, which maintained there is a “compelling public interest” in making public the names of Santos’ guarantors, who co-signed the bond to keep him out of jail pending a trial on charges of fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds, and lying to Congress.
“There is a compelling public interest in maintaining the greatest transparency possible in these proceedings, which involve criminal charges brought against a sitting member of the United States House of Representatives for fraud and theft of public money, among other alleged criminal conduct,” reads a letter to the court signed by ABC News, the Associated Press, the Atlantic, Bloomberg, CNN, Insider, NPR, NBC News, Newsday, and the Washington Post. The New York Times submitted a separate letter with the same requests.
Santos has until Friday, June 9, to appeal the decision before the names are made public. Until then, the names will remain under seal. Requests for comment to Santos’ spokesperson and his lawyer were not immediately returned.
Santos was indicted in Suffolk County federal court last month on charges he stole money from his own campaign, defrauded New York’s state unemployment insurance system, and grossly exaggerated his wealth on financial disclosures to the House of Representatives during his two runs for Congress. He could face 20 years in prison if found guilty. The congressman has deemed the prosecution a “witch hunt.”
The freshman Republican was released on $500,000 bond guaranteed by three unknown individuals, whose identities he has fought tooth and nail to keep secret.
On Monday, his lawyer, Joe Murray, said in a filing to the court that unsealing the names would sic a “media frenzy” upon the three individuals and pose a danger to their wellbeing. He said that Santos would rather withdraw the bond and submit to pretrial detention than allow the names to be publicized.
“If this Court is so inclined to unseal the sureties, we truly fear for their health, safety and well being,” Murray wrote, requesting that the suretors be notified if their names are unsealed so they can quickly withdraw the surety. “My client would rather surrender to pretrial detainment than subject these suretors to what will inevitably come.”
On the other hand, the media outlets cited a recent decision in another high-profile case, that of FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, where a federal judge ruled bail suretors’ identity is “traditionally is public information” in deciding to unseal their names, and argued that allowing their names to remain secret allows them to avoid scrutiny for a financial relationship they voluntarily entered.
The public’s interest in knowing their identities is particularly salient in the case of a member of Congress like Santos, they argue, for the same reason political candidates must disclose the identities of their donors: to keep the powerful accountable to the people rather than moneyed interests.
“That the identities of these sureties have been shielded from public scrutiny, particularly in light of the specific charges against Rep. Santos, only breeds suspicion that the sureties could be lobbyists, donors, or even fellow congressmen or public officials seeking to exert influence,” wrote the news outlets. “It is also entirely possible that the sureties lack any agenda at all. But as Justice [Louis] Brandeis so eloquently put it, ‘Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.'”
Santos flipped his Queens and Long Island congressional seat in 2022 but quickly became a political pariah after basic facts about his biography, including his job history and education, failed to withstand scrutiny. The congressman has since been accused of everything from lying about his Jewish heritage, to check fraud in Brazil, to stealing from a fundraiser for a dying dog.
The congressman has also faced considerable scrutiny over his campaign finances. He has not accounted for the true origin of $700,000 he claimed to loan to his campaign, and his campaign disclosures show numerous transactions of amounts just below the threshold requiring itemization. He is also facing an FBI probe over his alleged brokering of a $19 million yacht sale for a major campaign donor.