Two New Jersey veterans are now saying — Congressman George Santos promised to raise funds for life-saving surgery for one of their dogs in 2016, then got elusive and hit the road with the money.
Santos, the embattled Republican freshman, is facing mounting pressure to resign after he lied and misrepresented his educational, work and family history. Santos has admitted to “embellishing” his resume but has claimed he is “not a criminal”.
Rich Osthoff, a US Navy veteran, told CNN his pit bull Sapphire started developing a tumor in 2015 that continued to grow in 2016. Osthoff said he is homeless and living in a tent after losing his job and home.
Osthoff’s mentor and friend Michael Boll, founder of the New Jersey Veterans Network, told CNN he took Osthoff under his wing as part of the charity’s mentoring program and tried to get help for his dog.
Boll said the two veterans were linked to Santos by a mutual friend who told them Santos was frequently involved in helping and rescuing animals. Boll and Osthoff both knew Santos by the name Anthony Devolder, they said.
Santos set up a GoFundMe for Osthoff’s pit bull Sapphire, Boll said. A post from George Devolder’s Facebook profile links to GoFundMe, which raises funds for surgery for the dog.
“Sapphire is a 10 year old Red Nose Pitbull keeping this man company, doses them [sic] She doesn’t deserve to die from this tumor, she deserves to be treated and cared for,” the Facebook post reads in part. “Will you help this baby and her daddy stay together for a few more years? Doesn’t he deserve to have her? Let’s all come together to help this family of two stay healthy!” says the post.
CNN has reached out to Santos’ attorney and his congressional office for comment. Santos told Semafor news agency that the story, first reported by Patch.com, was “fake” and that he “had no idea who this is.”
The fundraiser eventually raised around $3,000, according to Boll.
But things went wrong after Osthoff tried to access the GoFundMe money, he said.
According to Osthoff and Boll, Santos became uncooperative – first Osthoff said he had to take his dog to a veterinary clinic of Santos’ choice, then he claimed another clinic wouldn’t accept Santos’ payment.
“I had to jump through hoops and do everything my own way,” Osthoff told CNN. “He was just really, really difficult. One obstacle after the other.”
At one point, Santos told Osthoff directly that he would not get the money. Osthoff said he accused Santos of running a fake charity and Santos became confrontational.
“He got so mad at me and he blew up and refused to give me the money and then just stopped taking the calls,” he said.
In a statement to CNN, GoFundMe said it removed the fundraiser from its platform after receiving a report about it.
“When we received a report of an issue with this fundraiser in late 2016, our Trust and Security team requested proof of delivery of the funds from the organizer. The organizer did not respond, which resulted in the fundraiser being removed and the email associated with this account being blocked from further use on our platform. GoFundMe has a zero-tolerance policy for abuse of our platform and will cooperate with law enforcement investigations of individuals accused of wrongdoing.”
Boll tried to mediate between the two, in vain.
“Anthony was pretty dissatisfied with everything I said and was reluctant to even speak to me anymore,” Boll said.
Santos eventually stopped responding to messages from Boll and Osthoff, and Osthoff says he never received any payment from the fundraiser.
Osthoff said his dog died about six months after he was last seen with Santos.
His dog Sapphire “was my little savior,” he told CNN. “She kept me on this planet.”
Osthoff said he had to beg for the money to have her euthanized.
Osthoff said he contacted police about his interactions with Santos, but said “it went nowhere at all.”
Because Santos went by a different name when the two veterans were in contact with him, Osthoff said he wasn’t aware Anthony Devolder and George Santos were the same person until recently.
“In December I started seeing him on TV,” Osthoff told CNN. “I recognized his face and it just made my stomach turn when I saw him.”
“That he’s now been given a position where he affects the lives of thousands of people… it’s really disheartening to know,” Boll said.