A $19 million luxury yacht deal brokered by Representative George Santos between two of his wealthy donors has captured the attention of federal and state authorities investigating the congressman’s campaign finances and personal business dealings.
The sale, which has not been previously reported, is one of about a dozen leads being pursued by the F.B.I., the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn and the Nassau County district attorney’s office, people familiar with the investigation said.
Prosecutors and F.B.I. agents have sought in recent weeks to question the new owner of the 141-foot superyacht — Raymond Tantillo, a Long Island auto dealer — about the boat and his dealings with Mr. Santos, including his campaign fund-raising efforts.
Mr. Tantillo bought the boat from Mayra Ruiz, a Republican donor in Miami. Mr. Santos negotiated the payment — $12.25 million up front, with $6.5 million more in installments — and advised the two on the logistics of turning over the yacht, according to a person familiar with the sale, which took place a few weeks before his election in November.
It is not clear what laws, if any, may have been broken in the transaction. Several election law experts said that if the sale was designed to inject money into Mr. Santos’s campaign, it may be in violation of federal law governing caps on campaign contributions. It could also be illegal if Mr. Santos tied any commission he received on the sale to previous or future donations.
But even if Mr. Santos broke no laws, the deal serves as further evidence of an emerging narrative given by people in his political orbit — that Mr. Santos seemed to use his campaign not only to win elected office but also as a networking exercise to ingratiate himself with rich donors and enrich himself from those contacts.
Mr. Santos has denied wrongdoing. Joe Murray, a lawyer representing Mr. Santos in potential criminal matters, declined to comment, as did spokesmen from the F.BI., the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn, and the Nassau County district attorney, who is working with federal authorities on the investigation.
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Mr. Santos’s campaign finances and personal business dealings have been under scrutiny following revelations by The New York Times in December that Mr. Santos had fabricated or embellished most of his résumé. The Times has since reported on curious omissions in his campaign filings, an unregistered fund connected to him, and other irregularities in his finances.
A central mystery is Mr. Santos’s sudden, unexplained jump in income, and where he got the money to loan himself roughly $700,000 over the course of his 2022 campaign.
During his first bid for Congress in 2020, he reported an income of $55,000; two years later, he reported a $750,000 salary and over $1 million in dividends from his company, the Florida-based Devolder Organization, which Mr. Santos described as a “capital introduction” business.
Mr. Santos, a Republican, has said publicly that his company brokered deals between high net-worth clients. In an interview with Semafor in December, he sought to explain his work by saying that if a client wanted to sell a plane or a boat, he would “put that feeler out there” among his contacts, adding that he had landed a couple of million-dollar contracts.
“If you’re looking at a $20 million yacht,” he told Semafor, “my referral fee there can be anywhere between $200,000 and $400,000.”
As it turns out, there was, in fact, a yacht worth nearly $20 million.
In 2019, records show, John H. Ruiz, a Miami lawyer and businessman, bought a superyacht made by the Italian yacht builder Mangusta. The yacht, which was listed at the time for 18 million euro, or $20 million, sleeps 12 guests and seven crew, and featured an infinity pool, a waterfall and an outdoor shower. It was called “Namaste, a greeting in Hindi.
Mr. Ruiz, a Coral Gables lawyer who specializes in health care and malpractice claims, gained notoriety last year when he took his data analytics company public in a reverse merger with a special purpose acquisition company. The company, MSP Recovery, briefly had a record-setting valuation of nearly $33 billion, making Mr. Ruiz a billionaire many times over.
But the stock promptly plummeted to a dollar a share and, in June 2022, he and the firm’s co-founder lent the company $113 million to plug a cash shortfall.
Mr. Ruiz did not donate to Mr. Santos’s campaign, but his wife, Mayra, was a particularly generous supporter. Campaign finance records show that on March 31, 2022, Mayra Ruiz gave $10,800 to Mr. Santos’s joint fund-raising committee. Later, she was among the first to give Mr. Santos money after he won the election.
Mr. Santos has failed to disclose any of his Devolder clients. But in December, the Tantillo Auto Group — Mr. Tantillo’s network of car dealerships on Long Island — and two organizations tied to Mr. Ruiz’s family were identified by The Daily Beast as Devolder clients. The Daily Beast quoted Mayra Ruiz saying the family had hired Devolder in early 2022, but did not provide more detail.
Ms. Ruiz did not respond to requests for comment. Christine Lugo, a lawyer for Mr. Ruiz, said her client was “not interested in making any statement other than the fact that he has already publicly disclosed that he does not know who George Santos is and has never contributed to his campaigns and has never done any business with him.”
Mr. Santos, by many accounts, mingled campaign fund-raising with personal business opportunities. Several donors have described encounters with Mr. Santos at fund-raisers in which he would describe deals he could broker with other donors in industries including insurance and pharmaceuticals, or he would tell them about donors who were seeking to sell businesses or luxury items.
Mr. Santos would offer to bring people together, with the implicit understanding that he would take a cut, they said. The pitches were often paired with requests for donations. None of the other potential arrangements described to The Times appear to have resulted in deals.
Representative George Santos, outside his district office in Queens, is being investigated by federal and state investigators, and also faces ethics inquiries.Credit…Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Among the donors he courted, Mr. Santos seems to have grown close to Mr. Tantillo, according to people familiar with their relationship.
Mr. Tantillo gave more than $17,000 to Mr. Santos’s campaign and affiliated committees; his estranged wife is recorded as giving at least $5,000 more, as is another ex-wife. (Contribution limits in New York congressional races in 2022 were slightly altered after a state court ruling scuttled an electoral map and forced an August primary; the Federal Election Commission held that candidates could raise additional funds.)
In August, Mr. Santos approached Mr. Tantillo with an offer to sell him the yacht. The agreement was hammered out in late September in Coral Gables, and Mr. Santos suggested moving the boat into a free-trade zone at the port, the person said.
It is common for boat sales to take place in a free-trade zone before going overseas — often, the Bahamas — and returning with a new owner, according to another person familiar with the sale and with the Miami port system.
As negotiations progressed, Mr. Santos pressed Mr. Tantillo for additional donations and financial help for his campaign and for other Republicans as Election Day drew near, the person said. Mr. Tantillo did not provide additional funds.
“I have every reason to believe that Mr. Tantillo will not be charged for anything, including the purchase of a boat or campaign contributions,” said Robert Curtis Gottlieb, a lawyer for Mr. Tantillo.
At least one other large donor was asked for a major contribution weeks before the election, The Times has reported.
After weeks of negotiations, Mr. Tantillo agreed in September 2022 to buy the yacht, according to a person familiar with the sale. The deal was brokered by Mr. Santos with Ms. Ruiz, according to emails described to The Times.
On Nov. 3, 2022, “Namaste” left for the Bahamas from its berth in West Palm Beach, Fla. Fifteen days later, port records show, the boat returned to Florida under a new flag — the Cayman Islands — a different name and a new owner.
Mr. Tantillo rechristened the boat “Neverland.”
Alexandra Berzon contributed reporting.