Embattled Rep. George Santos scammed a veteran out of $3,000 he needed to pay for an operation for his beloved sick dog, local news website Patch reported Tuesday.
Without the funds Santos had raised on GoFundMe, Richard Osthoff told Patch that his honey-colored pit bull mutt Sapphire passed away.
"Little girl never left my side in 10 years,” Ostoff told Patch. “I went through two bouts of seriously considering suicide, but thinking about leaving her without me saved my life. I loved that dog so much.”
It’s the latest revelation in the list of lies Santos has been accused of telling. Santos was sworn in to represent New York’s 3rd District covering parts of Long Island and Queens on Jan. 7, amid calls for his resignation and multiple investigations into his conduct.
Santos has brushed off criticism, insisting his fabrications were mere embellishments of his résumé, and didn’t return a request from Gothamist for comment on the latest allegations immediately.
He denied the accusations that he’d swindled Ostoff to news outlet Semafor, and said that he had “no clue” who Osthoff was.
Back in 2016, at the time of the reported GoFundMe scam, Osthoff, 47, was living in a tent in an abandoned chicken coop in Howell, New Jersey, with his service dog Sapphire.
While Osthoff had a place to stay he was sleeping in the chicken coop to be closer to the vet where Sapphire was receiving treatment for a large tumor, according to Michael Boll, a friend and veteran who met through his group NJ Veterans Network and corroborated much of Osthoff’s account.
Osthoff told Patch that Sapphire developed a large tumor. A veterinary technician who treated the dog suggested Osthoff reach out to his friend Anthony Devolder, who ran a group called Friends of Pets United and helped raise funds for pet owners.
In June 2016, Santos’ GoFundMe page raised the funds needed for Sapphire’s operation, and Osthoff was overjoyed. But that soon gave way to confusion and frustration. Santos said the procedure couldn’t be done in New Jersey and had to take place at a specific clinic in Queens. Osthoff got a ride with his friend, the vet tech, to the Queens clinic, where a vet told them Sapphire couldn’t be operated on.
After that Santos reportedly became harder and harder to reach.
“I’m sick of being jerked around. I’ll take her to another vet, but that cash was raised on her behalf,” Osthoff texted Santos, according to screenshots of the conversation obtained by Patch.
Santos had replied that the money was spent on other pets. "Remember it is our credibility that got GoFundMe [...] to contribute. We are audited like every 501c3 and we are with the highest standards of integrity."
Friends of Pets United isn’t registered as a nonprofit anywhere in the country, according to IRS records.
Sapphire’s condition worsened and she eventually died in January 2017.
While Boll said he believed Sapphire’s tumor was inoperable at that point, he thought Santos should have forked over the funds to help Osthoff pay for outstanding vet bills that had accumulated during her illness. At one point, Boll even called Santos to encourage him to return the money, he said.
“He did not like that at all," Boll said. "He was a little bit combative on the phone and did not want to do anything."
Boll and Osthoff discussed reporting the incident to authorities or GoFundMe but eventually let the matter go.
“If I had to rate this as a crime, like we're talking, taking money from children with cancer and then veterans, you know what I mean?” he told Gothamist. “This is the worst possible thing that you could do.”
Osthoff couldn’t be reached for further comment right away.
A spokesperson for GoFundMe said that the account had been deactivated after they received complaints about the fundraiser. The company also said that the email associated with the account was banned from the platform.
"GoFundMe has a zero tolerance policy for misuse of our platform and cooperates with law enforcement investigations of those accused of wrongdoing," the company said in an emailed statement.
This story has been updated to include comment from GoFundMe, Michael Boll and more details about Osthoff's housing.