US Rep. George Santos, on Wednesday pleaded not guilty to charges he duped donors, stole from his campaign and lied to Congress about being a millionaire, all while cheating to collect unemployment benefits he didn't deserve, The Associated Press reported.
Santos, 34, was released on $500,000 bond following his arraignment, about five hours after turning himself in to face charges of wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making false statements to Congress.
He surrendered his passport and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, noted AP.
A New York prosecutor launched an investigation against Santos in late December after he admitted to "embellishing" his resume.
Later, the US House Ethics Committee announced that it would investigate Santos over allegations that he lied extensively about his background and violated campaign finance laws.
Some of the biggest questions around Santos’ campaign activity have centered on the financial windfall that allowed him to report a personal loan of $705,000 to his successful 2022 campaign. In Santos’ previous, failed bid for Congress, in 2020, his personal financial disclosure form listed no assets and a salary of $55,000.
After Wednesday’s hearing, Santos said wouldn't drop his reelection bid and defied calls to resign.
"This is the beginning of the ability for me to address and defend myself," he told reporters outside a Long Island federal courthouse. He said he's been cooperating with the investigation and vowed to fight the prosecution, which he labeled a "witch hunt."
Santos has also come under fire for falsely claiming to have Jewish heritage. The Forward had questioned a claim on Santos’ campaign website that his grandparents “fled Jewish persecution in Ukraine, settled in Belgium, and again fled persecution during WWII.”
In another story, the site noted that he had called himself a "proud American Jew" in a position paper that was shared with Jewish and pro-Israel leaders during his campaign.
Santos later maintained that he still identifies as “Jew-ish” despite reports showing that his grandparents were Catholics born in Brazil.